The central image of Hong Sang-soo's On the Beach at Night Alone is that of a woman quietly curled up and lying motionless on the sand, her back turned to us. It's not repeated all that often in the film -- we just see it twice, really. In a chatty film that otherwise consists of people walking and talking or sitting and talking -- their conversation often lubricated by food and drink, as in much of Hong Sang-soo's work -- the spectacle of a woman communing quietly with the ground speaks to an indefinable sense of longing, a layer of metaphysical sadness.
There's no real story on the surface. The first half hour or so follows Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) in Hamburg, visiting a divorced friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa). The rest follows Young-hee back in Korea, where she interacts with other people from her life. Young-hee is an actress who has recently had a torrid fling with a director. The emotional legacy of the affair comes to color all her interactions.
Director Hong and his younger star Kim Min-hee became gossip fodder in Korea last year when it was alleged that they were having an affair – a relationship that they confirmed earlier this year. It resulted in the actress being dropped by her managers and portrayed in the press as some sort of homewrecker. One could see the film as a kind of penance -- a reflection on the hurt Hong caused his lover, whose melancholy dominates the picture, especially the turmoil of human interaction -- the pain of honesty as well as the frustration of inexpressiveness. That might be why the image we carry away is its loneliest, quietest one.