There seems to a a trend of metafiction in South Korean arthouse. Before Burning (2018) there was On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui Haebyeoneseo Honja / 밤의 해변에서 혼자 2017), by Hong Sang-soo and starring his real-life mistress (now partner) Kim Min-hee as Young-hee, a former mistress of a great Director (Moon Sung-keun). It’s also a slow burn, with the central affair merely hinted at for most of its running time. But Kim gets two stupendous set-pieces, all facilitated by alcohol, and she burns it all down.
The affair has already ended by the time the film starts, and Young-hee is in a small German town to avoid the media shitstorm. Her days are spent quietly walking around and admiring the winter scenery while chatting with older friend Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), but her sometimes mildly flirtatious body language hints at a less rigid lifestyle in times past. A young guy dressed in black sometimes walks up to ask them the time, in Korean. This first half ends when he carries her off from the beach like a corpse. Okay.
Part two shows Young-hee back in Korea, reconnecting with friends and acquaintances. The men seem a bit stand-offish, maybe because she, as she later puts it, “ha[s] a destructive side.” Upon meeting a contemporary, one of the first things she says is, “You look old.” And at a dinner party she really lashes out, drunkenly proclaiming all men to be unworthy of love because of “fake things and dirty acts.” Sounds like the projection of an actress in an affair. They decide to settle Young-hee at a beachside hotel to help her recuperate spiritually; when they enter the room, the young man, still dressed in black, is wiping the balcony window with an absurdly small rag, to no real effect. No one notices him. Young-hee’s second outburst comes when, improbably, she meets the Director and his location scouting crew at a beachside restaurant. She flaunts her destructive side in his face, thanks him resentfully for loving her so well, and generally makes the other four people at the table feel extremely awkward.
Kim perfectly portrays that feeling of meeting up with an ex and wanting to be civil but lashing out in spite of oneself. Her emotional destruction comes from a broken core and spews out like a runaway train. It’s utterly captivating to watch. And, like a wish fulfilled, she gets the Director to admit his regret over the whole thing.
Then she wakes up on the beach. Was it all a dream? I’m inclined to think so, mainly due to cinematographers Kim Hyung-koo and Park Hong-yeol’s surreal focuses of the film (her exits from restrooms, stilted masters of dry indoor conversations) and the inexplicable presence of the young man, especially in the second half, where nobody notices him even when he’s literally obstructing the ocean view.
But, to quote Albus Dumbledore, “Just because it’s all in your head, Harry, doesn’t mean it’s not real.” After his expression of regret, the Director reads a passage from a book that inspired his current film. Its main point is that to truly love another, one must start from a place higher than happiness or unhappiness. Love—the intimate and ineradicable connection with another—is higher, deeper, and more complex than a simple question of happiness. He and Young-hee may be miserable now, he seems to be saying, but that negates their connection not a whit.
Which begs the question of the actual affair between Hong and Kim. For sure he feels guilty for opening Kim up to having her good name media-dragged through the mud, but since they ended up together, he probably doesn’t want to take any of it back. Is the use of a dream-narrative, then, an act of empathy toward Kim and recognition of her own agency (can’t tell her story for her), his projection of what she must be feeling or what catharsis she desires (the exact opposite of the previous interpretation), or a form of moral insulation, an artistic crutch to tell a story too close for comfort, personally and temporally, without having to answer to one or the other of the above interpretations?
Perhaps a dream is, formally speaking and without getting bogged down in realism, just the best way to highlight emotional traumas, the conflicts and tempestuous memories that never go away.
This piece has been published at Critics at Large.