Sometimes a riddle can be a solution, sometimes an enigma can be a revelation and sometimes, some very rare and lucky times, watching a film can feel like being given the keys to the city of a filmmaker’s work — oh, that’s what it’s all about! The new Berlinale competition title “On the Beach At Night Alone,” from Hong Sang-soo, a filmmaker I’ve admired and appreciated but struggled to adore, is among his most inexplicable movies so far. It is drunk with dialogue, a conversational playground that seesaws, swings and roundabouts in endlessly surprising, sometimes cutting ways, and it’s accented with flurries of his trademark hyper-naturalistic surreality: a mysterious abduction; a figure on a balcony unseen by characters chatting three feet away; an offbeat ending that implies half of what we’ve just seen was a dream. Maybe the most perplexing film ever to make total sense in a way that has nothing to do with logic, after 18 feature films, including 8 Cannes premieres, 2 Venices, 2 Locarnos and now 3 Berlins since “The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well” debuted in Rotterdam, I’ve finally found my Hong Holy Grail.
There is a single, scintillating reason for this, and her name is Kim Min-hee. Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve never quite got the South Korean director the way many others have (this is all hugely subjective, I beg your indulgence) is because I do not believe any actor has ever quite got Hong the way Kim Min-hee does here — not even Kim herself in Hong’s nonetheless terrific, playful “Right Now Wrong Then.” This is a spectacular, complex, mercurial performance so aligned with the weird isobars of Hong’s meteorology that it creates its own weather.
The actress, so poised and premeditated in “The Handmaiden” and so free and sure here, plays Young-hee, herself an actress between gigs, who is in the slipstream of a recent abortive affair with a married movie director (one does not need to know that Kim and Hong are rumored to be involved in real life to sense innately that the film is vertiginously personal). But however much Young-hee is based on Kim it doesn’t really matter: she negotiates the character’s quicksilver mood changes (and brilliantly plays drunkenness without resorting to the old staples of slurred words or hiccups or whatever) with a gravity-defying grace that you only look away from when the dazzle gets too bright.
When we meet Young-hee, she is in an unidentified German city in the north of the country with her friend Jee-young (wonderful foil Seo Younghwa, also a veteran of “Right Now, Wrong Then” as well as the more minor “Hill of Freedom“). Jee-young lives there having left her husband of ten years back in Seoul, and she and Young-hee have what feels like one ongoing, delightfully frank and often funny conversation “Before Sunrise“-style, as they wander through street markets, settle on park benches, smoke on balconies and even dine with friends. One of those friends is played, film festival nerd alert, by Mark Peranson, programmer of the Locarno Film Festival that awarded “Right Now, Wrong Then” the Golden Leaopard, but that curious bit of casting is kept to cameo level and so isn’t too distracting. The women compare personality traits, admire the chilly city, and discuss Young-hee’s love life. “I have no desire,” Jee-young says ruefully at one point but if anything Young-hee’s problem is the opposite; not for the last time does she suggest, without a whisper of embarrassment, that she’s promiscuous. The segment closes with our first glimpse of a beach, as promised by the title, where the first outright inexplicable event occurs. Maybe.
The mysteries of form and content multiply. The film is split into two numbered parts, with an intermission-style blackout separating the halves, and even a fresh set of credits coming up before the Korea-set Part 2, and yet it feels tripartate. Maybe that’s because, despite the many one-on-one conversations, the dramatic crescendos tend to happen around bigger ensemble dinner scenes, and there are three of those: the German dinner party; the session with old friends at which Young-hee tipsily kisses a girlfriend on the lips and allows her frankness to stray boozily into rudeness; and the dinner at which she and her movie director ex-paramour, both made teary and emotional by drink, come finally face to face. These last two happen in Gangneung, a seaside town in Korea that gives the film the second of its two beaches, though typically the title misleads: Young-hee is not often shown alone at the beach, and when she is, it isn’t night.
In a filmmaking nation renowned for peerless genre craftsmen and intricate arthouse darlings, Hong has always felt a little outside the fray. His films are deceptively loose and airy, his prodigious output (especially recently) perhaps contributing to a sense of slightness in some of his lesser work. This decade alone he’s made ten features, with his eleventh “Claire’s Camera,” which will reunite him with his “In Another Country” star Isabelle Huppert, already in post while he shoots another. But whether because of its personal nature, its occasional ferocity, its unusually dark undercurrents, its audacious defiance of expectation and explanation or Kim Min-hee’s essential performance, “On The Beach At Night Alone” feels like it will be exceptional even for longtime diehard Hong fans. For this newly minted one, its opalescent unknowability felt exciting and full of promise, like a key finally turning in a lock I’d never thought I’d open. [A-]