You need to know a little tabloid gossip before watching On the Beach at Night Alone: South Korean director Hong Sang-soo and star Kim Min-hee are apparently in love. Standing between them is a 21-year age difference, Hong’s wife of 30 years, and a scornful Korean press. The affair is a transgression worthy of raising eyebrows anywhere (especially considering our recently increased scrutiny towards lasciviousness in the film industry), but it’s especially transgressive for Hong and Kim. Adultery was a jailable crime in South Korea until 2015, and Hong’s wife refuses to divorce him despite the fact that Kim Min-hee has “put [her] in hell.” Watching On the Beach at Night Alone–which is getting a free Pubic Cinema screening on Wednesday–one gets the idea that Kim Min-hee has been put in hell too.
In the film, hell is cold. Kim Min-hee plays an aptly-named character named Younghee, who has herself been recently outed for her affair with a prominent (and still married) filmmaker referred to only as “The Director.” She spends the runtime bundled up in a long coat and scarf, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, staring into a wintry ocean, and walking through streets that aren’t her own. The film’s aesthetic is dingy, grey, and overcast, and the climate is one of increased tension–but Kim Min-hee appears stoic and graceful throughout. The film is less of a love letter to her than it is an empathetic portrait of her, encouraging the viewer to find the humanity often overshadowed by celebrity scandal. Hong Sang-soo is having an awkward conversation with his audience, and he breaks the ice by not justifying his own behavior, but asking us to see Kim as a fully-rounded human being instead of a headline.
On the Beach at Night Alone is a graceful film full of great awkwardness. In the fallout of Younghee’s affair–an unseen event of large-scale awkwardness–the movie shows the many small, awkward conversations that follow with old friends and new acquaintances. With his long takes and unceremonious framing, Hong Sang-soo makes each instance of small talk a dramatic conflict all its own. Every soju-soaked conversation has baggage, whether we see it or not, and the camera patiently pans (rather than cuts) to capture every stifled laugh and repression of unrequited love in real time before any explosions of drunken confrontation break out (and oh, they do!). From these uncomfortable social exchanges comes a great amount of humor, but Hong isn’t really asking us to laugh at his characters like he has in the past. Here we recognize their human fallibility, remembering just how difficult it is to simply be a person in public.
Dialogue isn’t the most cinematic element of cinema, though, and you might think that littering a film with ordinarily-photographed small talk rather than images of beauty or action would limit it’s overall power. Hong Sang-soo is playing a different cinematic game: his movies are distinctive in the way they move through time. Most Hong films have similar conceits–a slightly bumbling character wanders around, bumping into people they know, and then must navigate various interpersonal relationships–but each film is made distinct by a uniquely puzzling structure. In last year’s Right Now, Wrong Then, for example (another film generously screened for free by Public Cinema in the past), a man and a woman go on a date, it ends poorly, and credits roll. Then the date starts over again, with miniscule differences that culminate in a totally different outcome. Hong Sang-soo’s world is a mundane multiverse that allows people second (and sometimes third and fourth) chances to attempt grace.
On the Beach at Night Alone is no exception, demonstrating further structural inventiveness. The central gimmick of a Hong film is always best unspoiled, however (sorry about the synopsis of Right Now, Wrong Then; it’s just the simplest example), so I won’t say too much. To be cryptic: this is a very low-key puzzlebox, that sets you up early on to expect one trick (which involves a slasher character, of all things!?), but ultimately delivers another. The structure of the film may immediately seem elusive or uneven, but upon further reflection, it has an incredibly symmetrical, balanced, and beautiful shape. What I admire most about it is the way in which discovering the solution to the puzzle actually brings emotional catharsis–but to say how would ruin the experience of figuring it out.
On the Beach at Night Alone is among the ever-increasing number of incredible (and accessible!) art films that Knoxville would never screen if not for The Public Cinema. Along with Tangerine, Heart of a Dog, The Love Witch, and Mountains May Depart, this is one of their most wonderful offerings.
Where: Regal Riviera Stadium 8, 510 South Gay Street, Downtown Knoxville
How Much: FREE