Saturday, October 07, 2017

NYFF ’17: On the Beach at Night Alone

Hong Sang-soo is often dubbed the “Korean Woody Allen,” but that superficial comparison was never really that apt, until now. Hong’s extramarital relationship with thirty-something actress Kim Min-hee (star of Right Now, Wrong Then) is nowhere near as problematic as Allen carrying on with his long-term girlfriend’s adopted daughter, but the resulting Korean scandal has been even more intense. Adding fuel to the fire, Hong finally acknowledged the relationship at a press conference for one of his three most recent films, in which an actress played by Kim herself deals with the fallout resulting from her affair with a prestigious director. You could think of it as Hong’s Husbands and Wives. Regardless, the meta-ness is often downright uncomfortable in On the Beach at Night Alone (trailer here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

Even though she is still young, Young-hee’s acting career was already in the doldrums before her affair with Sang-won. To avoid the media feeding frenzy, she first visits her friend Jee-young in Hamburg and then tries laying low in her provincial small town. She walks incessantly, while her friends do their best to distract her. Yet, she compulsively ruminates on her scandal, yearning to see him again, yet deeply regretting their affair.

Throw in a prodigious amount of drinking and you pretty much have Hong’s film in a nutshell. Of course, there is more to it than that. However, much like The Day After, Beach, lacks the narrative gamesmanship that has distinguished Hong’s best recent films. Arguably, there is still a bifurcated structure, split between Hamburg and Korea, but it follows in strict chronological order.

Kim is quite arresting playing a slightly unstable analog of herself, but her exquisitely sensitive performance in The Day After is even more accomplished and arresting. Arguably, the finest work in the film comes from Seo Young-hwa, who charms and disarms as the complex but defiantly independent Jee-young. Kwon Hae-hyo exemplifies an exemplary Hong supporting character as Young-hee’s shaggy haired, hard-drinking art-house programmer crony Chun-woo. As if we needed additional layers of irony, actor-turned-politician Moon Sung-keun memorably appears as the adulterous Sang-won.

Beach is a revealingly personal film that will loom large for anyone studying Hong and his oeuvre. Nevertheless, it is not one of his more rewarding films. Kim Min-hee and Seo Young-hwa do nice work, but they cannot dispel the awkward vibe. Even viewers not hip to the behind-the-scenes drama will pick up on it. If you only see one Hong Sang-soo film at this year’s NYFF, it should definitely be The Day After. Recommended mostly for dedicated Hong and Kim fans, On the Beach at Night Alone screens tomorrow (10/8) and Monday (10/9), as part of this year’s New York Film Festival.