By the time you’re reading this, On the Beach at Night Alone might already be out of theaters. Which is a shame. If small strange American movies don’t get enough time in theaters, then small strange foreign movies definitely don’t get enough time in theaters. On the Beach at Night Alone is definitely a small strange foreign movie, a personal story of layered and confusing grief.
The film starts in Germany, where Young-hee (a knockout performance by Kim Min-Hee, who I was surprised to recognize thanks to one of my favorite films last year, The Handmaiden) just sort of hangs around with her ex-pat friend. We barely learn anything about her, except that she just had an affair with a married man, a director, and they broke up, but he’s (maybe) coming to see her in Germany. We never find out if he actually comes because about forty minutes in the film abruptly cuts, rolls a new set of credits, and follows Young-hee as she hangs around in a South Korean beach town with a group of old friends. They insist she should continue to act, but also, like her Germany based friend, keep asking her subtly about the relationship, how the Director is, and what her plans are.
It’s barely a plot. Most of the film is spent hanging around with Young-hee as she wanders around, waits for people, sits in stores, etc. Sometimes she goes outside to smoke. The aimlessness is intentional. Almost all the dialogue revolves around someone asking her questions about her past relationship, about her future plans, but Young-hee rarely responds and if she does it’s vague. It’s clear she’s still in mourning, but for what we’re unsure and possibly she is too. Is it because she misses the Director? Is she nervous she’s ruined her career? Was she addicted to the intensity of the affair, regardless of who is was with? Is it something else, or, is it a mix of all those things? She can hardly come to terms with the past, and has no idea what to do next. What else is there to do but to hang around?
Aimlessness could be an emotionally sound choice and still make a boring movie. Thankfully On the Beach at Night Alone is buoyed by nearly every formal element. Kim’s performance alone could probably justify the whole thing. Her performance is muted, but still dangerous. She’s sad and she’s angry, but she doesn’t have anywhere to direct the feelings, and so she shifts between tired and electric at a moments notice. Having dinner with her friends she gets a little drunk and, after both dispensing and receiving some light teasing she lashes out wildly at everyone, demanding they aren’t “qualified” for love, that everything they do is fake. Her friends are silent as she rails against them, and then she seems to just exhaust herself and closes back down. The lashing out is brutal, but her defeat at her own hands is almost more punishing.
The locales feel like the sort of places you’d hang out if you were mourning something vague as well. Her day in Germany is shrouded in fog and mist, and her friend describes the park they wander around as “a good place to be alone”. In South Korea too the beach town is rainy and cold (it’s winter) and even the beach, when she finally gets to it, is a great white expanse, utterly abandoned. The film looks and feels freezing and damp regardless of the location.
Finally, director Hong Sang-Soo imbues the whole film with an almost menacing surrealness. We’ve talked a bit recently about how life can seem surreal to the point that surrealness sometimes is more honest than hard core verite film making. On the Beach has a number of surreal flourishes to accentuate how trapped Young-hee feels. The film restarts about halfway through, and the second “film” mirrors the first one in numerous ways: they both take place over a single day and each have a meeting with a single friend turn into a dinner with multiple friends and each ends on a beach. Some of the dialogue is recycled verbatim in the two sections. But those strange moments pale in comparison to the man in a black coat who hovers around the edges of the film, who abducts Young-hee in Germany and triggers the reboot of the film. He is never spoken of directly and what he represents isn’t totally clear. Again, that’s okay. Young-hee is stuck in a moment of confusion, and just as the reason she feels lost is complicated, so too is the man in the black coat. He probably stands in for a lot of things.
It’d be tough to review this movie without pointing out that it’s more of less a true story, that Kim Min-Hee and Hong Sang-Soo did indeed have an affair during the filming of a previous collaboration. In truth the movie feels only tangentially related to that. Mostly, it’s about being stuck in a moment and trying to climb through quicksand to get out. Maybe that can be read through the prism of an affair, or the circumstances that would cause someone to have an affair, or the fall out of an affair, but it’s truly more universal than that. When Young-hee stands up and walks off the beach at the end of the film (after what may have been cathartic confrontation or may have been a dream sequence) we can’t be sure where she’s heading, but we know she is finally out of the loop of the past and the rut of the present, and that feels good and personal. There is a lot for her to unpack, and for the audience to unpack, and it’ll take time. Already I’m hoping I have a chance to watch this movie again, to further dissect the layers of narrative and performance. Find this movie if you can.
On the Beach at Night Alone was 8.5 awkward dinners out of 10 naps in the sand.