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[Herald Review] Life inspires accidental masterpiece

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Updated : March 14 2017

‘On the Beach at Night Alone‘ a riveting drama on love’s meaning, but distractingly close to director, actress own story

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The Korean poster for “On the Beach at Night Alone” (Jeonwonsa)
Can a film be appreciated on nothing but its own merit, completely independent of the person behind it?

Apparently not, as evidenced by the snickering and scoffing of the audience at the Korean premiere of Hong Sang-soo’s “On the Beach at Night Alone,” during what were intended as serious scenes but were blatantly reminiscent of the director’s widely publicized personal affairs.

Hong returns to his often-used theme of what love means in life, with his trademark style of improvised directing that ends up meshing beautifully in the final product.

The plot is virtually nonexistent, as the camera follows actress Young-hee -- played by Kim Min-hee -- who randomly roams across Germany and eastern Korea, silently screaming for answers to questions on her love for a married director Sang-won.

Ring any bells? It should, because the movie is not even trying to hide it.

Despite what Hong said about the film not being a biopic, it feels very much like a lovechild of Hong’s relationship with Kim -- the partner of his extramarital affair -- and a spy cam dogging her every move.

None of the other main characters are crucial to the narrative, as the movie focuses solely on Kim’s -- I mean Young-hee’s -- inner struggles as she grapples with the fallout of her affair.

Her tantrum about “Who deserves to be loved? No one deserves it!” along with her insults to her all-too-understanding friends are instantly forgiven, because they all think she is too lovely, too attractive, and too talented to let herself be bogged down by naysayers who “have nothing better to do.”

There is no point in highlighting the similarities between the movie’s main character and the real-life couple -- the only real difference appears to be their names.

Yet, the results are quite remarkable.

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Kim Min-hee stars in "On the Beach at Night Alone" (Jeonwonsa Film)
The characters talk about nothing but themselves, which ironically tells nothing about them. But Hong gets under their skin to disclose the profound loneliness in their hearts.

“People here are so lucky, they get to enjoy this view every day,” “No matter how beautiful it is, it gets lonely when you’re by yourself,” says a dialogue between Young-hee and her friend in Hamburg, Germany.

At times, the camera annoyingly zooms out of what the audience wants to see the most, showing more by showing less. Other times, it just sits there, focusing on Kim who subtly portrays inner turbulence.

Kim’s critically acclaimed performance of Young-hee and her brutally honest outbursts are what keeps the audience awake and guessing. The contrast between her ramblings about death and apparent hunger for life and love spells out Hong’s question to the audience: What does love mean in life?

Kim’s brilliance notwithstanding, the depth and subtlety of her depiction of Young-hee may have been possible due to the fact that she was basically playing herself. This contrasts with the underappreciated performance of Moon Seong-keun, tasked with portraying Sang-won who is obviously Hong’s movie self.

However, some elements of the outstanding result on the silver screen appear to have been achieved by chance.

During the first act, a man clothed in black asks Young-hee and her friend what time it is. The scene goes nowhere, but the man makes a return appearance in the second act as a person wiping Young-hee’s hotel window, although it does not seem to get any cleaner.

Hong shrugged off speculations about the man’s significance and his connection to Young-hee’s obvious obsession with death.
“It may sound irresponsible,” he said, “We asked a cinematographer to shoot the scene, which lingered inside me. So I left it in the movie.

“It’s not fun to talk about what the scene means, what it is a metaphor for. I think it just goes along with the image and the sound that I put on the screen. ... I loved what I got, and I don’t really care about what it means,” he said.

The scene and the overall movie may owe some of its brilliance to chance, but the end result is a clever and thought-provoking film that once again reminds viewers of the ever-reliable talent of the couple.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)

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