Near the end of “On the Beach at Night Alone,” a prickly, fascinating new film from the South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo, a well-liquored character notes, “Personal stories are boring.” Her statement could be read two ways, either as a late attempt to preempt criticism of this intensely personal story, or as a wry assurance that the story isn’t personal at all. Maybe there’s a third way too, which is that it doesn’t mean anything in particular. People do blurt out the weirdest things in Hong’s movies, especially given all the soju he plies them with.
Still, we may as well consider the evidence for Option A. The story follows a young actress named Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) who is reeling from the scandalous aftermath of her affair with a married film director. Probably not coincidentally, Kim and Hong confirmed tabloid rumors earlier this year by acknowledging their own off-screen relationship, which began while Hong was still married.
“On the Beach at Night Alone,” which screens twice this week at the Downtown Independent courtesy of Acropolis Cinema, can thus be seen as a confession, a deflection or, like so much of this filmmaker’s work, a teasing acknowledgment of the blurry distinction between truth and fiction. But while Hong may greet his audience’s curiosity with a certain sphinx-like detachment, his investment in the story itself feels entirely sincere, largely devoid of his usual structural trickery and deeply attuned to his characters’ pain.
We first encounter Young-hee in frigid Hamburg, Germany, where she walks the streets and parks with an older friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa). Occasionally one of them will quietly allude to the affair, an illicit romance that Young-hee still hasn’t fully given up on. Kim’s performance, which won an acting prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, is remarkable in its ability to register intense sorrow and thoughtfulness beyond the parameters of dialogue. Young-hee’s loneliness is remarkably eloquent, and it finds an atmospheric echo in the chilly, muddy terrain of a beach they visit with some local friends.
A quiet, mysterious rupture occurs at around the 25-minute mark, and on the other side of it Young-hee is back home in Gangneung, a city on the eastern coast of South Korea. Surrounded once more by familiar faces and a lingering whiff of rumor, Young-hee casts off her melancholy and emerges from her shell in spectacularly Hongian fashion, through a series of seemingly endless dinners and drinking sessions, filmed in long takes punctuated by the occasional, quizzical zoom of the camera.
Hong is a tirelessly prolific filmmaker; this is one of three new movies he’s directed this year, the others being “The Day After” and “Claire’s Camera.” As his least-receptive critics have pointed out, his work might well benefit if there were less of it to go around. Yet there is pleasure and even meaning in Hong’s productivity. Few other directors have shown such ruthless consistency in charting the layers of awkwardness and misunderstanding that exist between the sexes, and few others have made these familiar insights feel like such a renewable source of comic and melodramatic confusion.
“On the Beach at Night Alone” isn’t as accomplished as Hong’s 2015 collaboration with Kim, the masterfully bifurcated “Right Now, Wrong Then.” But it’s more than worth seeing for Kim’s exposed nerve endings alone, and also for the way in which Hong’s typically playful sensibility seems to tilt at times into a surreal, menacing strangeness.
Whichever beach Young-hee winds up on, she is followed by a figure whose identity remains a mystery to the end. Still, it can’t help but suggest a metaphorical interpretation, and perhaps even a rebuke to those inclined to study the frame for answers. Maybe it’s personal after all.
‘On the Beach at Night Alone’
In Korean and English with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Downtown Independent, Nov. 21 and 24, 8 p.m.