By Theo MacDonald
Criticisms of Hong's recent output claim that he increasingly does not care about the craft of cinematography, i.e lighting, cinematography, his jarring zooms. This seems to confuse minimalism with neglect. A productive period that has seen four films in the last eighteen months gets made paints a picture of a filmmaker in total control of his craft, defined by his own terms. True that he is favouring natural light and the zooms aren't subtle, but his composition is deceptively brilliant and well thought-out. Almost every scene is one shot, with montage cuts only occurring in transitions. The acting is incredible, and for Hong to sustain this atmosphere and interaction between actors— in the same period of time that a conventional film would help them out with a hundred cuts — is an achievement in cinematography that gets ignored compared to an aesthetically beautiful visual style. Moreover, the camera moves in the scenes, not just by zooming, but for instance at the dinner scene in On the Beach at Night Alone with the six of them, he pans between different characters as they talk across the table (almost Godard style) instead of using a reverse shot, employing his own visual language and executing it with ease.
The movie itself is magical: mixing the mundane with the absurd to create a texture that is relatable and distinctly Hong's own. It is a period in the life of a successful but (by choice) out of work actress Youngee, played by Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden), who is reeling from an affair gone sour with one of her directors. A first part set in Hamburg with feelings of alienation, melancholy and adventure moves to a longer section in a seaside town in Korea, where the adventure becomes aimlessness and the melancholy transforms into rage. The comedy of observing cultural barriers in Germany, and the lightness of Kim Min-hee not knowing what to do on her holiday give way to darker themes when she returns home: now uncertainty defines her identity and the culture she finds herself in is hypocritical and conservative. One of the characters comments on society's judgement of Younghee's affair by saying, "They can act cruelly, but two people in love is immoral?" Younghee is up against it in the loneliness that has been determined for her. A mysterious figure appears at intervals (asking for the time, washing windows, picking Younghee up on the beach that bookends both sections). The sea represents some kind of death for her, or peace. Hong weaves in this frustration and sadness of the individual with a dream sequence that could easily be missed if not for the one or two suspicious notes in it. There, Younghee sees the director she had a love affair with in all his regret and self-pity. He's planning to make a film about it. The film doesn't answer what the protagonist's response will be, but maybe the answer is that a resolution would suggest some form of rationalisation, and instead Hong leaves us with the mystery.