The lines between what’s personal and what’s cinematic are blurred in the films of Hong Sang-soo. Rather than seeing fiction as a static, explanatory work, there is room to find agency for Kim Min-hee’s own truth: complicating the viewer’s claims to understand her lived experience. Xuanlin Tham embarks on a search for empathy in On the Beach at Night Alone.
Alone outside a small café in Gangneung, a woman sings quietly to herself.
“Are you doing well? Do you live happily?”
She sways gently to the melancholy tune, taking a drag on the cigarette in her hand and closing her eyes as they begin to shine with tears. “Can you see my heart? Why has my mind fallen into this state?”
Cinema may be the art form that most viscerally allows us to see from other perspectives, with the moving image being perhaps the closest imitation of our experience of reality. But what of the distance between seeing and understanding? What is required, of a film, of its audience, to not merely see someone, but to see her heart?
In our desire to understand a film or its creators, we sometimes seek answers in mapping the autobiographical onto the cinematic. Does a coming-of-age screenplay draw upon its writer’s childhood? What traces of a director’s life can be found in their film about a failed marriage? These questions may reveal compelling interpretations, but they do not necessarily hold the key to understanding a film or the people who crafted it. In On The Beach At Night Alone, reality and fiction are made deliberately inseparable, but not because this offers an easy path towards truth: on the contrary, the film explores the difficulties of mutual understanding both within and beyond the medium of cinema.
Starring Kim Min-hee and directed by prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, On The Beach At Night Alone follows an actress named Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) in the aftermath of an affair with a married director. The parallel drawn with Kim and Hong’s own relationship is so clear that real-life context is not merely beneficial, but essential. Yet to call the film simply autobiographical is to remain on the surface, dismissing the careful reflexivity of its construction. It is tempting to focus on Hong’s motives: why tell a story so proximate to his own life? But the more important question arrives when we understand his role as not so much to say something, but to listen. Far from a narcissistic work of self-justification, the film sees Hong attempt to unravel the consequences of an extramarital affair from a point of view that is distinctly not his own. On The Beach At Night Alone feels like a purposeful exercise in empathy with Young-hee – one that is simultaneously undertaken by both Hong, and the audience.
After all, Hong’s words and camera only play a supporting role – the film revolves around Kim’s magnetic performance. As Young-hee attempts to find her footing in the aftermath of her affair, we are sometimes invited to partake in simple, tactile pleasures alongside her; as she runs her fingers across the spine of a book in Hamburg, or back in Gangneung, caresses a head of cabbage so tenderly that it transcends the need for words. At other times, the camera is careful not to intrude. When she suddenly kneels down at the head of a bridge, pausing for a long moment as if in prayer, the camera remains behind her – obscuring her face in acknowledgment of the privacy of the moment. Because she is afforded the space to be quiet, her eventual outbursts feel that much more raw; her mercurial shifts in mood sweep us along to a rhythm entirely under her control. Over a dinner table strewn with soju bottles, a familiar backdrop for confrontation in Hong’s films, casual conversation takes a seamless turn towards antagonism. Stirred to anger by her friend Myung-soo’s (Jung Jae-young) remark that it’s better to live than to succumb to her desire to “fade away graciously”, she retorts, “Don’t pretend to be wise. You can’t love, so you just cling to life, right?” Raising her voice, she declares, “You’re not capable of love, or don’t deserve to be loved.” Like everyone else around the table, we fight the urge to avert our eyes, uncomfortable with this explosion of bitter honesty. Her gaze, a few moments ago soft and contemplative, sparks with intensity. She laughs. “If you don’t know anything, keep your mouth shut.” Though ostensibly directed at her dinner companions, the rebuke also serves as a blunt reminder of our own lack of authority on Kim’s life.
Upon returning to Gangneung from Hamburg, Young-hee is asked, “What did you do abroad?” Her reply is uncomplicated. “I just – was there. It was nice.” We see how much she cherishes the freedom to simply be, to exist without scrutiny as she comes to terms with her heartache, her loneliness and need for closure. Perhaps we recall how eagerly people flocked online upon learning of Kim and Hong’s affair, eager to dispense judgment and call them “disgusting” behind the impunity of an internet profile. Yet while Kim was never given the same room to breathe, in this film at least, time and space is carved out for her character to feel an entire spectrum of yearning and grief, solitude and companionship, quietude and anger. The film’s slowness, its embrace of careful observation over excessive explanation, redistributes the burden of reaching understanding from Young-hee to the audience: emotional intelligibility is not a thing taken for granted in this film, but the telos we must work towards. Her anguish is not deconstructed and put on display for our consumption. Instead of waiting to be told how she feels, we are expected to listen. The film rejects the notion that her trauma can be mined for a reductive interpretation of emotional truth – it allows her to be ambiguous, and in a world that demands an explanation for her actions, ambiguity is agency.
The closer we get to Young-hee, the more salient our distance from her becomes. Hong’s signature flourish, a somewhat jarring camera zoom, reinforces our awareness of our status as observers. The more his camera zooms in, the more acutely we sense the artificiality of our relationship to Young-hee, our inability to physically reach out and connect. We are merely looking on from behind a lens that can only get so close. Yet this is also Hong’s perspective, and rarely do we sense so keenly that behind the camera, there is a director who also searches for understanding alongside us. Hong’s style constantly reminds us that we are watching a film, informing us that perfectly empathizing with Young-hee is impossible. But it demonstrates that there is something to be gained in trying regardless: in confronting the limits of understanding, and how human connection is reproduced, aided, and problematized through cinema. Once we reorient our perception of the film as an explanatory work, we can envision it as a space where Kim has the agency to complicate both Hong’s and our claim to understand her lived experiences. On The Beach At Night Alone is a purposeful attempt to empathize with others through the creation and experience of film – and in doing so, it continuously grapples with the limits of cinema as a vessel to reveal emotional truth.
When Young-hee finally confronts the director with whom she had an affair, he tells her that he is making a film about “a person [he] loved”, shaped by his own experiences. In one of the film’s best moments of self-referentiality, she replies, “Personal stories are boring. It’s boring to talk about yourself all the time, isn’t it?” The great irony, of course, is that On The Beach At Night Alone is far from boring. Kim makes sure of it. In the film’s final scene, we see Young-hee sleeping on the beach; as the waves come in and out, we reflect on the many mysteries left entangled. Can we see her heart? Maybe not, but perhaps we don’t need to. She gets up and walks away from the camera, alone. Whatever she’s searching for, I hope she finds it.
Xuanlin Tham is a politics student based in Edinburgh who loves Kate Bush and going to the movies alone. She particularly adores queer cinema, Korean and Taiwanese films, and films about morally conflicted priests.