I must confess that I chose to watch On the Beach at Night Alone all because of Kim Min-hee, who blew me off with her eyebrow-raising performance in The Handmaiden screened in Hong Kong last summer. The natural co-existence of innocence and sophistication in her aura and appearance is simply irresistible.
To my surprise, Kim impresses me even more in On the Beach at Night Alone, and it now seems no surprise at all that she was crowned the Best Actress at the Berlinale in February. She captures the dramatic changes of the protagonist's emotions in incredible precision. The twists and turns look so natural that no one on and off the screen can be offended, which would have been impossible without any delicate control in acting.
Perhaps I'm a fan of hers now.
What truly strikes a chord though is the script by Hong Sang-soo, also the film director, which examines loneliness in such great depth and sharpness that it almost makes my heart bleed. His script may seem a bit loose with too many puzzles (e.g. the mysterious man who appears to be stalking the protagonist and her friend in Germany and the glass cleaner at her hotel room), to me it is a refreshing, stylish visual essay inquiring into the nature of loneliness.
Loneliness does not necessarily mean being alone. Life is not as simple as it seems. Just as the German bookstore owner talks about his musical compositions in the first part of the film, 'These are very simple pieces, but if you go deeper, they are more complicated.' So is loneliness. If you inquire into the feeling of loneliness, it reveals something beyond the so-called common sense, which is no more than a fallacy. In fact, the greatest loneliness does not set in when you are on your own. It is not even anything close to the endless, tormenting wait for someone, for love, or for a definite answer to a long-due question. The greatest loneliness looms when there are people around you, showing their love and support, and you still feel cold and deserted. In other words, loneliness does not have anything to do with the physical condition of being alone or accompanied. When you are alone, you can be still content and relaxed, without being bothered by how the other people think about you and what they do to you. In a company, however, especially with those whom you know love you and support you, the least thing you want is to upset them and kick their ass. This means you have to be mindful of what they say, what they do, and how they react to your words and deeds. This burden only adds to your deadlock of troubles and frustrations. Even if they are willing to listen, when it comes to something personal and sentimental, unfortunately, reason and language often lose their effectiveness as a means of communication. Expression is difficult enough already, and understanding with empathy is even harder. What is the point of speaking up if no one listens or understands? Emotions often flare up and make these conversations sour and abrasive, just like what we see in the film, upsetting everyone engaged. Even if the people around you know you are in distress and do not feel offended, they are still upset, or embarrassed at best. The uncontrollable eruption of emotions only adds another burden on your heavy heart. Paradoxically, self-oppression will also end up with the same result, for obvious reasons.
This point is ruthlessly elaborated in progressive layers in the two-part story – the first set in a coastal city of Germany and the second in Gangneung on the east coast of Korea. The colour tones of the two parts are apparently different, whereby Germany is cooler and Korea brighter, but it does not change the overarching aura of harsh coldness and desperate desertion.
In Germany when the protagonist, Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) visits a friend, she is asked repeatedly about her thoughts and next moves, presumably as an indication of care and friendship. But most of her responses are: 'I don't know'. The more the friend asks, the more confused Young-hee appears, and thereby, more lonely.
Back in Korea, Young-hee is warmly welcomed by her friends. They take care of her living, but also fail to spare her of confusion and loneliness. They seem to be tolerant and understanding, despite Young-hee occasionally awkward remarks and behaviour, yet they do not really know how to help her solve the problem, not even what sort of consolation she needs. The more they show they care and want to help, in fact, the farther they push Young-hee into the abyss of loneliness. By all means it is sad, and the saddest of all is that it is inevitably true.
Notwithstanding other messages and interpretations, what turns out of the encounters at the beach and the restaurant seal the final heavy note of her loneliness, despite the deliberately light and tender touch, which she has been trying so hard to shrug off throughout the story. It seems to me the playwright is reminding us of the hard fact that for whatever reasons it may emerge, loneliness is indispensable in life. No matter how hard you try, loneliness is inescapable.
And this is exactly what I find most strikingly and profoundly attractive of the film, so much so that I have now watched it twice, with certain lines and scenes still looping in my mind.