Film Review: On the Beach at Night Alone

Hong Sangsoo’s radiantly funny and accurate depiction of a brokenhearted wanderer finds its perfect interpreter in Kim Minhee, a great Korean actress.
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On the Beach at Night Alone noodles along—quirky, slight and rather charming—until its midsection when, during a raucously funny, very drunk and true dinner party among friends, it springs to vivid, hilarious life and truly builds from there into something. The main character, Younghee, played by leading Korean actress Kim Minhee, is an actress in serious recovery after her relationship with a married film director goes south. She gets completely soused and first starts railing against love, its illusion and the impossibility of ever finding it, and then becomes sexually very receptive to the sudden blandishments of a supposedly straight and quite lovely married female friend. To the astonishment of the hapless husband and their shocked but delighted hosts, the two begin making out.

It’s all done in one amazingly fluid and behavorially rich take (cinematography by Kim Hungkoo and Park Hongyeol), which is director Hong Sangsoo‘s trademark. Prior to this scene, Younghee has drifted, trying to get over that man, going to Germany to see an older lady friend, Jeeyoung (Seo Younghwa), herself reeling from a painful divorce. Should she stay there and live with her friend? Is that even an option? Hong captures that quality of “anything goes” which can permeate a bereft lover, who wants nothing so much as major change—any change—in his or her life, if only to forget that recent devastation of the heart. Few films have ever caught a female psyche in emotional crisis with such clearness and complexity; this one—with its casual conversational style recalling Rohmer—vaults Hong directly into Ingmar Bergman-at-his-best territory. He’s also a man of rare good taste, as the subtly effective captures of music—much of it classical—he chooses surely attest.

Kim Minhee gives one of the great performances of this—or any other—year. What’s surprising about it is how modest and understated she is throughout; she could well have been playing a student rather than a famous film star. At the start, she’s rather mousy and evasive, sidling around Jeeyoung, tentatively singing a simple folk song, as if that director has completely obliterated her personality and verve. However, that Hong favorite—rice wine—loosens her up, especially her tongue, and she spends the last part of the movie pretty lit up or recovering from a hangover. She’s super-funny, titillating her friends with accounts of the impressive penis sizes she encountered while abroad (as the men amusingly display various states of mortification), all the while swearing that she must change or be ruined forever.

The final moments are an audacious dramatic feat that takes your breath away, at once supremely satisfying, stabbingly poignant and completely convincing, the purest wish-fulfillment stuff and yet not. In the past, following any miserable breakup—the kind that just brings you to your knees—I have always read the two Colette Cheri books as a kind of therapy that works, so miraculously prescient was that writer on the ways of men and love. I can now add On the Beach at Night Alone to my romantic medicine cabinet, and can sincerely recommend it to anyone in the same awful boat as well. 

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