“These are very simple pieces, but if you go deeper, they are more complicated.” So explains a minor character midway through Hong Sangsoo’s “On the Beach at Night Alone,” and while he’s referring in context to a series of children’s musical compositions, the line feels like a directive from Hong himself to viewers of his films. His latest, an elegantly bisected character study of a young actress gradually coming to terms with the end of an affair, is certainly simple in ways the director’s acolytes will cherish: unfussy in form, open in expression and gentle in reach as its maker revisits such recurring preoccupations as loneliness, regret and the value of love in life and art.
How complicated it is is another question. Though it’s less conceptually ambitious than 2015’s career high “Right Now, Wrong Then,” “On the Beach at Night Alone” nonetheless attains a kind of searching gravitas — thanks in no small part to a marvelous lead turn by Kim Minhee that subtly takes proceedings into a more abrasive register, as the full extent of her inner torment is revealed in the second half. As a disarming variation on a familiar Hong theme, this Berlinale competition entry should prove another day at the beach for the distributors and audiences who usually stump for his work.
Bar the odd zoom shot that remains a directorial signature of sorts, “On the Beach…” provides further evidence that Hong’s informal style is maturing into something a little crisper and more autumnal. As in “Right Now, Wrong Then,” much of its pathos lies in a clean-lined, two-part narrative structure: The relationship between those parts may seem more linear than in the previous, more whimsically speculative film, but the undefined chronological break between them marks a clear and disconcerting psychological shift in the protagonist Younghee (Kim), an achingly sensitive woman in whom time seems to open as many wounds as it heals.
The film opens with Younghee evidently in a state of emotional recovery: from what, exactly, is divulged at Hong’s characteristically sauntering pace. She has left Korea for Germany (Hamburg, it appears) to visit an older friend, Jeeyoung (Seo Younghwa, excellent), who headed west to clear her head after a divorce and wound up staying. Younghee, it turns out, is also putting physical distance between herself and a failed relationship — an affair with a married filmmaker — as well as putting her successful acting career on ice until she feels suitably healed.
Yet what proved a therapeutic escape route for Jeeyoung — who has concluded, not at all unhappily, that she’s simply “the kind of person who lives alone” — has a more agitating effect on Younghee, who can’t leave the break-up behind, wondering out loud if the filmmaker misses her as much as she misses him. At this point, as if in sympathy with its psychologically cornered protagonist, the film fades to black and starts again, complete with new cast credits. We open on Younghee seated in an empty cinema at the end of a screening, almost as if she’s just watched the same depiction we did of her recent past. Could that German sojourn have been a daydream, an actor’s dramatic internal interpretation of what took place, or what might have been? Hong, ever puckish, doesn’t steer the viewer too strongly.
Either way, Younghee is back in her coastal home city of Gangneung in South Korea, still at a loss over how, in her words, “to resolve what it is that I want.” Her relationship to the past is still a fractious one, tainting her interactions with old friends and acquaintances surprised by her new, distant froideur. Over a sequence of late nights drinking soju rice liquor — the trusty dramatic lubricant of many a Hong film — a number of confessions emerge, as our heroine alternates between lashing out and lacerating herself in pursuit of romantic closure. “I harass people and destroy everything,” she says with resigned nonchalance, though in the event a reunion with the architect of her heartbreak, she still has plenty of blame to assign.
Kim (whom many previously unacquainted viewers will now recognize from her turn in last year’s “The Handmaiden”) works wonders with one of Hong’s most purely melancholic leads, muddling her self-pity with sharp, pained stabs of frank self-awareness too. It’s a subtle, intuitive performance that very much dictates the varying pace and tenor of largely conversational scenes that might, in the wrong hands, seem samey.
Hong’s pale-toned aesthetic is likewise differentiated by fine degrees across the film’s two parts, with the musical motif of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major as a unifying ribbon. Two cinematographers (Kim Hyungkoo and Park Hongyeol, respectively) put a slightly different light and temperature on matters, though the eponymous beach, whether in Germany or Korea, is a uniformly chilly sanctuary — supporting Younghee’s assertion that she’s “even more lonely in a beautiful landscape.”