In the context of Hong Sang-soo’s extramarital affair with actress Kim Min-hee, the work holds more resonance and significance than its delicate and melancholic style would suggest.
Dir. Hong Sang-soo
2017 | South Korea/Germany | Drama | 101 mins | 1.78:1 | Korean, English & German
NC16 (passed clean) for sexual references
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Seo Young-hwa, Jeong Jae-yeong, Mun Seong-kun, Song Seon-mi
Plot: An actress wanders around a seaside town, pondering her relationship with a married man.
Awards: Won Silver Bear for Best Actress (Berlin)
International Sales: Finecut
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore International Festival of Arts ’17 – first published 7 Aug 2017)
If you think Hong Sang-soo had been prolific since he made his first feature in 1996, averaging a film a year, then 2017 would provide us some perspective: this year alone, he premiered three films, one in Berlin—the film this review is based on, and two at Cannes—A Day After and Claire’s Camera. The most high-profile of the trio is of course On the Beach at Night Alone, winning Kim Min-hee the Silver Bear for Best Actress. That is, however, not the end of the buzz.
Riding on a huge wave of controversy—at least in his native South Korea—for allegedly having an extramarital affair with Kim, Hong is caught in a no man’s land, and his film is a bittersweet one where real and reel meet at the crossroads of artistic expression and atonement. (Hong and Kim have since confirmed that they are together, pending a nasty divorce settlement between the director and his wife.)
It is with this context that Beach holds more resonance and significance than its delicate and melancholic style would suggest. Hong’s films have always been breezy and whimsical, but there’s a case to be made that Beach is his most personal film to date, and in his oeuvre, one of his most comfortless films.
“You can’t love, so you cling to life, right?”
Kim plays Young-hee, an actress who wanders around a seaside town, reflecting on her illicit affair with a married man (sounds familiar?). Hong plays with narrative structure by constructing the first-third of the film in Hamburg, Germany (how fitting that the film premiered in Berlin rather than Cannes), as Young-hee and an older woman muse about love and life. The remaining bulk of Beach sees Young-hee return to South Korea. Backed by two sets of opening credits, the film is essentially one short film and one semi-feature spliced together.
In typical fashion, Hong brings his characters together over food and beer, with conversations mounting from a variety of topics, but which almost always gravitate toward affairs and relationships. He also weaves in what could be his personal views (or perhaps of Kim’s as well) on their real-life affair, in ways that challenge us to read between the words and emotions.
Kim, of course, gives a performance that effortlessly channels a sense of ennui—her character must find herself amidst her chequered past—while also showcasing her ability to go from casual, conversational mode, to a fiery, prickly intensity at the snap of a finger.
While not a masterwork by any yardstick, Beach will, in time to come, and together with the other Hong films starring Kim, be remembered for the very same thing that Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman were scandalised—or mythologised—for in the 1950s.