After an affair with a married man, actress Younghee decides to take some time out. She travels to the far-off, city of Hamburg. In a conversation with a friend she asks herself if her lover will follow her and whether he misses her as much as she misses him. During her long walks through wintry parks and along riverbanks, she attempts to make clear of this illicit relationship with the director.
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Sang-soo Hong, South Korea's most famous film director, besides having a long and well-stocked career (24 works, long or short, since 1996) is an international film festival fixture. An admirer of Eric Rohmer, he is noted - like his master - for his dislike of gratuitous effects and for his knack for depicting every day relations. On the other hand he is sometimes criticized for always making the same film, in the same environment (Seoul, its streets and... restaurants!) and for indulging in superficial marivaudage. Sure, his stories almost always address the subject of love but the Korean director is definitely not a mere illustrator of the grand maneuvers of amorous seduction. A minimum of attention makes it glaringly evident: there is always more to his characters than just one trying to lure another into their bed. True, his characters all have sex drive but they also have a brain, a heart and... many defects! Agreed, there is often a light comedy tone to his works (well exemplified by 'The Day After', one of his latest efforts) but, although very good at the genre, the director is more ambitious than just that. Bringing smiles is obviously one of his strong points but in his case, humor serves above all as a springboard for more serious matters. If you are not content with a superficial look, you soon realize that the Korean master's agenda (hidden or not) consists in examining such weighty topics as the meaning of life, human behavior, social relationships, and naturally art - particularly cinema and literature... Everybody knows that Marivaux and Rohmer did not deal only with mating, well... nor does Hong. And as for "always making the same film", haven't the self-appointed prosecutors heard of variations on a theme? What else do Fellini, Bergman, Woody Allen do? Hong does not repeat himself, he simply has a universe and motifs of his own: yes, his heroes are mainly intellectuals, but what is wrong about featuring those he mixes with and accordingly knows best, all the more since brainy ones - by definition - think (even if they often do it badly) and give depth to the stories told. Yes, the scene is often set in Seoul, but not exclusively so: if you take the Hong train, you will also travel to Kangwon Province, Juju Island, Shinduri, Tongyeong, Gangneung, Paris, Trouville, Hamburg, Cannes... "On the Beach Alone at Night", the work we are concerned here with, is an excellent illustration of my assertions. The story once again involves a film director (Sang Soo Hong is easily recognizable in the dream sequence as a tortured creator, who like his equivalent in real life is having a complicated love affair with actress Min-Hee Kim). And there is another of these hearty meals with plenty of beer and other spirits the director is a specialist of, but besides the fact that this kind of set-piece is as eagerly awaited by Hong enthusiasts as their equivalent in Hitchcock, Sautet or Chabrol films, they are always both hilarious and profound; side-splitting because loss of inhibition engendered by alcohol induces the characters to act foolishly; deep as liquor makes them spout (cruel) truths they usually keep unexpressed. In "On the Beach alone", there is not one but two of such meal sequences and they are amusing to compare. The second one, set in Gangneung is the classic Hong meal sequence : a group of "friends" laugh and make cutting remarks, especially the charming, well-educated, usually reserved heroin. The members of the group composed of people who had great expectations but driven by circumstances to lower their ambitions laugh at each other and instead of easing the atmosphere rub salt in the wounds. Earlier in the film, Yeong-hee, the actress, has lunch with a German couple in Hamburg. How different the atmosphere is then. In the company of a well-meaning, sensible, health-oriented, water-drinking German couple, no barbs are hurled but on the other hand the atmosphere remains awfully stiff and nothing of importance is exchanged.For Hong, perfection is obviously synonymous with dullness. The sure thing is that « Alone on the Beach » is anything but superficial. It is first and foremost the superb portrait of a woman who, despite her young age, finds herself at a crossroads. Having had, because of a scandalous affair with her director, to withdraw from the screen, the charming Yeong Hee wanders aimlessly throughout the story in a state quiet desperation, close to outright hopelessness, examining her life, her love story, the meaning of it all with no compromise, including in a surprising nightmare sequence. As for Hong, he lives up to the Bergman-like ambition of his project (although with a lighter touch than the Swedish master), proving both a consummate painter of melancholy and great woman's director. From the refreshing initial sequences in Hamburg (when Yeaong-hee still hopes her lover will come to see her) to the darker (and at times humorously dark) ones set in Korea, the writer-director aptly manages to make the audience connect with the young woman, making their own her states of heart and mind. He could not be served better than by Min-hee Kim, as engaging as she is beautiful, never putting on a show. On the contrary, she is herself and touches us all the more for that. The actress is well surrounded by Hong regulars, among whom Hae-hyo Kwon (as an old friend) or Sung-keun Noon (as the lover-director). « Alone on the Beach at Night » is accordingly - and definitely - one of Song-soo Hong's major works and is therefore, recommended.
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