Like a surprising number of compelling movie protagonists, Kim Min-hee’s Young-hee, the woman at the center of Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone, is an almost completely passive, reactive character. Distinguished by her severe, long black coat (or coats; it does appear to be longer in the early section), Young-hee spends the movie in cities where she doesn’t live, relying on the hospitality and whims of friends and acquaintances.
First, she’s on a sort of holiday, staying with a friend in a German city. They walk around parks in the cold weather, talking about the men in their lives or lack thereof, making tentative plans for the future and trying to avoid an odd man who keeps following them and asking for the time. Then, in the second of the film’s two chapters (each introduced simply by number), some time has passed and she has returned to Korea. Or is this part a flashback? The temporal connection, like most of those in the movie, is left deliberately unclear. In any case, now she’s spending her time with a group of friends rather than just one, catching up on where they are after years without having seen each other.
Having fashioned a movie that consists mostly of people talking to one another in close quarters, Hong wisely employs an intimate but layered sound design. The characters’ voices are crisp and audible even in hushed tones, with distinctive but unobtrusive background noises creating multi-tiered texture. It makes you feel as if you’re on that balcony or beach or in that kitchen or hotel room right next to everyone.
It’s a helpful tactic because you’ll want to pay as close attention as possible. Hong has no interest in laying out for you how each character relates to the others. We eventually (very eventually) learn that Young-hee is an actor and suddenly her tendency to become a blank slate upon each new encounter makes sense, with the other characters projecting their unhappiness, their regrets, their hopes and their assumptions onto her. When one man, an old friend, tells her, “You’ve changed,” it almost feels like a meta-joke.
Due to this constant sense of floating disconnectedness, On the Beach at Night Alone begins to feel like a surrealist film. And as it progresses and the many, many awkward laughs pile up (honestly, this is a very funny movie), it becomes clear that surrealist is exactly what it is. Much like Hong’s last film, Yourself and Yours, this one is more than a little Bunuel-inspired and more than a lot just plain inspired.