Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 23, 2017 8:28 pm 
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A captivating woman

Eric Kohn of Indiewire calls this film "a fascinating sublimation of autobiography into Hong’s precise creative terms," and that's a good place to start. Obviously his films always have an autobiographical element, or anyway don't stray too far from personal possibility, just as they are, he has explained, largely improvised, the scenes not specifically planned in advance. They often take place at a location for a film, sometimes by the sea, and include a movie director. But this time the (quite marvellous and charming) actress Kim Min-hee, the center of attention, is playing a role that skirts a zone close to her life, and to his. The result is a heightened effect, and one of Hong's best efforts.

But apart from its typical scenes of eating and drinking and conversation, this is a dreamy, magical film, not a confessional. True, its center of attention, Kim Min-hee, was rumored to have recently had a scandalous affair with Hong himself, when he was then still married. They confirmed this earlier this year, and as a result she was dropped by her managers and represented in the Korean press "as some sort of homewrecker" (Bilge Ebiri, VillageVoice) - though her CV doesn't seem to show too much damage from this, since apart from being in Hong's two latest films, including this one, she also has the leading role in Park Chang-wook's The Handmaiden. Several years ago her collaboration with Hong on film was in the structurally more complex Right Now, Wrong Then (NYFF 2015). In On the Beach at Night Alone, Kim Min-hee not only gets to play some version of herself, she also demonstrates she is very much alive, and far too good to be blackballed for her misbehavior.

In this film, her character, Young-hee, also an actress who did just the same thing she did, with a director, with the same results, has just come back from spending a period in Europe to get away. The film begins with a short segment set in Hamburg, Germany, where Young-hee is spending time with an older, divorced woman friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), and they enjoyably wander a park and a market, visit a musician bookseller, and then have a somewhat awkward dinner with a German couple. Young-hee's time in Europe sounds different when she talks about it later back in Korea. She depicts herself as having had a peaceful, meditative time, but also a sexy time. But then her best moments with Jee-young come when they're jokily fantasizing, about living together, even about being a couple. And then there is the rather haunting, unusual moment when, about to walk across a bridge, Young-hee gets down on the ground and bows. She tells Jee-young later she was making a wish.

After that prelude, Young-hee is back in Korea in a series of scenes and conversations, some sober, some increasingly drunken, in Gangneung, a town on the eastern coast that people say has been voted the prettiest and most popular in the country. Standouts are one where she waits for a man (Jeong Jae-yeong) for an hour in a little coffee shop. He seems to have some connection with her, but the woman who runs the shop turns out to be more than his "friend," and in a series of very awkward social moments begins ordering him to prepare food, to sort the beans. Later Young-hee has a couple of sprightlier scenes, well lubricated by alcohol, in which she speaks with abandon about herself and about life. This movie could exist just so we can watch Kim Min-hee in action bringing this character, who may or may not resemble Kim Min-hee herself, into action. As Justin Chang wrote for the Los Angeles Times, this movie, if less structurally and conceptually complex than other recent ones, "is more than worth seeing for Kim’s exposed nerve endings alone," as well as its unaccustomed shift in mood toward the surreal.

As some of her interlocutors tell Young-hee, she must not stop acting, there will be roles for her, and she is beautiful, more than others, amusing, delightful, unpredictable: captivating. Two scenes of her lying on the beach alone, as the surf comes up, bookend one final, fantastical, climactic sequence where the director, the one she had the affair with, is present, with others. She gets quite drunk, quite hysterical, almost screaming.

Drinking and periods of tipsiness are commonplace in Hong's movies, doubtless indeed in Korean culture, at least the branch of it represented. Drunken outbursts must thus be read as not embarrassing, but quite normal, and perhaps welcomed as revelatory, and afterwards, forgivable, and forgettable. Thus with Young-hee's screaming outburst. In the context it's a welcome aria, an opportunity to dot i's and cross t's, and above all to thank the director (Mun Seong-kun), who's there, for giving her his love (not to reproach him). Young-hee says some rude things to some of those present, but they seem to be taken in good spirit. The director then speaks, and has his drunken outburst, bursting into tears for the trouble he has caused Young-hee.

Those two scenes of Young-hee lying on the beach alone - asleep, when she is awakened by someone so she's not washed into the sea - are singled out by Eric Kohn of Indiewire as in key contrast to the usual chatty Hong Sang-soo scenes, related also, he thinks, to the moment when she drops down before the bridge to pray, and suggesting an "indefinable sense of longing, an added layer of metaphysical sadness enveloping the picture." Perhaps. But also, more specifically, the two parallel awakenings on the beach are a way of suggesting that the whole second sequence of Young-hee's greater drunken outburst and the director's reply, have been only a dream, and she has not really met with the director at all. It's a wish fulfillment fantasy, perhaps, providing closure she would have liked but hasn't had.

The greatest delight of Hong's films, which they share with the French Nouvelle Vague that is an obvious influence, is how they seem to catch life on the fly - and at the same time, fail to catch it. The particular delight of On the Beach Alone at Night is the way it records this fascinating actress in a whole range of moods, from quiet and pensive to aggressive and hysterical, all appealing and delightful, her mercurial character perhaps intermingling imperceptibly with the actual person, providing a version both sublime and a little ridiculous - a superb calling card should any other filmmaker want to consider hiring her, despite what the gossipy papers say.

On the Beach at Night Alone 밤의 해변에서 혼자, 101 mins., debuted at the Berlinale 16 Feb. 2017 (where Kim won the Silver Bear Best Actress prize), and its Korean theatrical opening was 23 Mar. This is one of three new movies Hong made this year, along with The Day After (also included in the Main Slate of the NYFF) and Claire’s Camera. It showed at 14 other international festivals including the NYFF 8 Oct. 2017, with a limited US theatrical release (with reviews) on 17 Nov. It was screened for this review 22 Dec. 2017 as part of the Museum of Modern Art "The Contenders" series.


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