Those who have recently discovered Kim Min-hee will know her as the magnetic actress in Park Chan-wook’s lascivious thriller The Handmaiden, in which she made the clinical act of tooth-filing a new form of eroticism, and in Hong Sang-soo’s latest string of films, in which she often becomes the subject of soju-fueled courtship. But in the early years of her career, which began two decades ago, the thirty-seven-year-old star had a reputation for being one of the worst actresses in her home country. The Korean film site HanCinema once noted, “Kim didn’t appear to have the acting skills to match her attractive appearances.” “Attractive but blank” was a label often attached to the former model.
is a curious word choice for Kim. In her six collaborations to date with Hong,
now her real-life partner, she has proven to be the kind of performer who fills
in the blanks. Hong’s camera often
remains stationary, and Kim’s many quiet scenes within his still
frames—solitary walks, idle moments in bed—serve as windows into her
characters’ textured personalities. It is fascinating to see her be so subtly revealing
when the details of her scandalous relationship with Hong, who was married when
they began having an affair in 2016, have been so grotesquely exposed on gossip
sites. At times, Kim doesn’t even seem to be acting—she simply exists. Yet this
existence is not blankness; it creates a contemplative mood that invites us to
imagine the inner lives of her characters.
2017 film On the Beach at Night Alone is
perhaps the most interesting entry in the recent, prolific run of Hong-and-Kim
collaborations. It’s certainly the most autobiographical. Kim plays Young-hee,
an actress who travels to Germany after being forced into hiatus due to a
failed extramarital relationship with a director. It’s a bold character choice
considering Kim had suffered similar career repercussions when her affair with
Hong came to light the year before: she has been heavily criticized in her home
country, and though it’s unclear whether or not it has been an entirely
personal choice, she has not since starred in a movie by another director. The
scandal did not diminish her ability to emote; rather, we feel her courage in
tapping into something so recent, personal, and possibly very painful, for the
sake of art.
Still, Kim has a sense of humor about her circumstance, with a mischievously curving smile that gives her tongue-in-cheek deliveries an extra punch. Her famously high cheekbones are nestled right below her eyes and they push up to form a friendly crinkle whenever she smiles. That expression—complete with a knowing glint in her eye—is both childlike and flirtatious. It is no wonder that Young-hee’s friends keep calling her “charming.” Something about the fresh-faced Kim feels so new and naive, inviting many men to flock to her side, as is the case in so many of these movies. It is also a quality that makes men project feelings onto Kim, leading to misinterpretations that are turned into comedic gold through Hong’s astute navigation of modern courtship. At thirty-seven, Kim easily looks at least a decade younger, yet she reveals her age in the way she thwarts men with her sexual ease—that of a much more experienced woman—and vulnerably exposes residual hurt from years of romantic missteps and regrets. There’s something incredibly weathered behind her youthful veneer.
This sense of turmoil beneath the surface allows Kim to transmit emotion even when she’s at her most reserved. But her quiet demeanor isn’t all there is to her, and she can easily oscillate into more explosive emotions. Much of On the Beach involves acquaintances in Young-hee’s life brashly tip-toeing around the public predicament of her love life, and these moments accumulate until she finally erupts. In the film’s second half, which follows Young-hee after her return to Korea, she lets her pain escalate into not one but two full-volume drunken confrontations over dinner. After one too many swigs of soju and rice wine—an evergreen Hong quagmire—Young-hee turns hostile, her initial playfulness proving deceptive. Her yelling almost happens in a trance as something switches in her—her eyes lowered, she does not look at anyone specifically. Who is she talking to? It seems like she is chastising her present company, but perhaps she is internalizing her own chiding. Then later, in a heartbreaking dinner scene that mirrors the first, she is finally face-to-face with the director she once loved. Her energy is more chaotic than before—she yells, then cackles, then sweetly brings a shot of soju to her lips and takes a sip.
But to see her at her best we have to go back to those in-between moments, which can almost be described as non-moments. Before all the inebriated quarreling, we see Kim in rare interludes of tranquility. One scene early on finds Kim’s character suddenly, silently kneeling down to pray in the middle of a road. She is shot from behind, her face hidden (are her eyes open or closed during prayer? Does she mouth the words?), yet there is something so moving about this mysterious, spontaneous gesture of spirituality.
Then, in the second act, there is a scene in which she gently pets a head of flowering cabbage in solitude for nearly a solid minute. Hong’s camera lingers on her lean fingers as they gently caress the cabbage. There is no narrative significance to this moment, but it is touching, even revelatory. She is given so much stillness, and fills it with empathy and yearning. And she lets the mind of the viewer wander freely: is there romantic connotation in how the cabbage calls to mind a bouquet of flowers? Does the softness of the cabbage leaves beneath her fingers remind her of a time she would stroke her lover’s hair? When she takes a whiff, is there an olfactory rush of nostalgia? Without saying a word, she has conjured up an entire past for her character. She keeps so still for so long, only the breeze gently moving strands of her hair, before she is rudely interrupted by a man yelling, “What are you doing?” The work of a “blank” actress this is not.
On the Beach at Night Alone is available to stream on the Criterion Channel through October 31, 2019.