NYFF 2017: Hong’s On the Beach at Night Alone

Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone “is a drama of rare lyrical exaltation,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “Kim Min-hee stars as an actress named Young-hee, whose life has been thrown into turmoil by reports about her affair with an older director. Although Hong and Kim have been in a relationship together that is tabloid fodder in Korea, the film isn’t directly autobiographical. . . . Hong builds moments of extraordinary romantic power, culminating in a brilliant sequence, constructed from a single ten-minute shot parsed with brisk and assertive zooms and pans, in which Young-hee reflects on her bitter experiences. Kim infuses the scene with a passionate existential resignation reminiscent of Gena Rowlands’s work in the films of John Cassavetes.”

“In the tradition of most Hong films, On the Beach at Night Alone marries rigorous structure with seemingly spontaneous action, deriving its energy from the pointed contrast,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “The film is divided into two asymmetrical acts, each preceded by their own opening credits sequence and shot by a different cinematographer (Kim Hyung-koo and Park Hong-yeol, respectively). Running roughly twenty-five minutes, the first act is an autumnal impressionist reverie, following” Young-hee “as she visits a friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), in Hamburg. . . . The film’s first act allows the audience to form an attachment to Young-hee and Jee-young’s relationship, while the second act, roughly seventy-five minutes long, finds Young-hee floating back and forth between friends in Gangneung, which is rendered in chilly and industrialized hues. . . . On the Beach at Night Alone’s two parts are united by repetitions that signal the recurring habits of our lives and the emotionally mathematical fastidiousness of Hong’s imagination.”

“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,” finds Alex Engquist at In Review Online. “The film is not a repudiation of characteristics in Hong’s work so much as a careful rearranging, and in the spaces newly created thrives a true collaboration.”

“One of Hong’s most earnest and endearing traits is to have his characters make explicit declarations of and moral diagnoses relating to a pursuit of truth, courage and love,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. “Hong isn’t exactly getting religion, but it certainly seems more viscerally attractive to him at the moment . . . In Hamburg, Young-hee kneels down before crossing a bridge for a moment of silent reflection . . . Over dinner in the second segment she gets much more direct, yelling at others ‘Everyone’s a coward! You’re not qualified to love!’ . . . It’s worth remembering words from earlier in his career, when defining his goal as to make films against the ‘propaganda of blind idealism and baseless hope for ourselves, which imprison our lives in a fog.’ The admitted influence of Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, with its earnest koan-like imperatives towards a new cinema, can be felt in such declarations onscreen and off; Hong’s work remains similarly singular.”

On the Beach at Night Alone premiered in February at the Berlinale, where Kim Min-hee won the Silver Bear for best actress. Critics Round Up has been tracking reviews all year.

Update, 10/11:On the Beach Alone at Night is not about plot or even about action,” writes Katie Goh for Another Gaze. “Instead the film is a portrait of the mourning process that follows lost love. Like the sea, which bookends the film, Young-hee’s emotions come in waves: she is stoic and then angry, upset and then stern, soft and hard. The film’s emotional impact is all down to Kim’s subtle range; she is the beating heart of the film.”

Update, 10/12: Writing for Reverse Shot, Nick Pinkerton notes that On the Beach at Night Alone “shares its name with that of a poem by Walt Whitman, which has the author contemplating ‘the clef of the universes and of the future’ before offering a benediction to ‘all spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets.’ There’s a temptation to see in this an echo of Hong’s established interest in parallel or bifurcated narratives—multiple universes, if you like—on display in both NYFF titles as well as works including Woman on the Beach (2006), Like You Know It All (2009), and Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), but this is precisely the sort of egghead overthinking that Hong loves to tee off on. . . . If Hong is indeed the best that we’ve got, there’s something troubling about this fact—for it should detract nothing from the integrity of his body of work to say that, when taken altogether, it is a quintessential expression of a cinema of disappointment and diminished expectations.”

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