On the Beach at Night Alone is Hong Sang-soo’s most sensitive character study since Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, and in the context of his relationship with lead actress Kim Min-hee — and the ensuing tabloid-fueled scandal their affair caused — it’s also Hong’s most self-questioning and self-critical film, interrogating formal techniques that have become trademarks of his recent work while complicating his career-long preoccupation with the fickle, foolish, yet somehow persistent nature of love. Hong’s structural ruptures are less schematic and more dreamlike here, his zooms more inquisitive than intrusive, and his characteristically ineffectual men still present but less of a concern. The film is not a repudiation so much as a careful rearranging of characteristics in Hong’s work, and in the spaces newly created thrives a true collaboration. As Young-hee, an actress recovering from the fallout of a recent affair with a married director, Kim is a magnetic and intuitive presence among absences, searching within herself and others for a sense of how her life and career should proceed. In the film’s first segment, she’s nearing the end of a self-imposed exile in Hamburg with an older expatriate friend (Seo Young-hwa), seemingly wishing to extend her stay but finding herself out of alignment with the needs of others, and with time: the park she tries to return to is closed, and she learns the market she wants to revisit the next day won’t be open, before a stranger approaches her from afar, wanting to know the time. Finally, Hong makes Young-hee’s loneliness and desire for escape manifest in a haunting and cleverly executed gesture, in which the same stranger seemingly returns to literally sweep her off of her feet and carry her away into the distance.
The achievement lies not just in how Hong makes the need to search for love palpable, but in the bittersweet, bitterly ironic recognition that feeling the absence of love is also proof of its existence.
The second segment of the film (heralded by its own opening titles) finds Young-hee back in Gangneung, South Korea; it opens with the image of her sitting in an empty movie theater as the credits roll, suggesting a significant separation between the first and second segments, as though the preceding scenes were distant memories, or perhaps a dream Young-hee had after dozing off in her seat. That ambiguity returns in the film’s final moments, but here the implication seems to be that some time has passed, and that Young-hee’s recent experiences both at home and abroad have had a significant effect. What she’s feeling in the aftermath doesn’t emerge, however, until a drunken dinner scene, during which Young-hee unloads her disillusionment and anger on her male companions and makes an unexpected, intimate connection with the woman sitting next to her (captured in one of Hong’s most poignant zooms, the camera adjustment relegating the surrounding men to voices on the periphery and letting body language speak volumes). “Where is love?” Young-hee asks. “It isn’t even visible. You have to see it in order to search for it.” The achievement of On the Beach at Night Alone lies not just in how Hong makes that need palpable, matching Young-hee’s searching (and Kim Min-hee’s probing emotional depths) with his own self-inquiry, but in the bittersweet, bitterly ironic recognition that feeling the absence of love is also proof of its existence.