Michael Sicinski’s review published on Letterboxd:
"The man who asked the time, later on the window-washer...these guys popping up. Do you think that's Death?"
This was a question posed to me by The Perspicacious Shelly Kraicer, who has had the good fortune to see Hong's latest film twice. It's highly plausible, especially given the way the window-washer is just hovering on the balcony toward the end of the film, his task completed but staring into the hotel room like a creep. But what's more significant than the particular details is the fact that this is a question that can be legitimately posed in a Hong film. The man who for so long has drawn comparisons to Rohmer is now possibly incorporating elements of Buñuel or even Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
No matter how outlandish the embarrassments or bad behavior became in Hong's cinema, there was always a basic adherence to realism. His formalism operated within the realm of a closed, recognizably human diegesis. He would force our attention with zooms or sudden pans, or link spaces unexpectedly through sharp edits. And of course, Hong's favorite technique has been refracted repetition, cleaving a film in half and replaying its narrative from a different perspective.
But the closest he ever came to abandoning recognizable fidelity to lived existence was his nonlinear chronology in 2014's Hill of Freedom. In that instance, his repetitions were scattered and rearranged. As a kind of semi-narrative explanation for this maneuver, Hong showed us a protagonist who was reading a lover's letters, having dropped them so that they were out of proper order. But the fragmentation was really keyed to the emotional pitch of the relationship as it was recalled by both parties. In retrospect, Hill of Freedom is the film that signaled that Hong was headed for a breakthrough.
But it took painful events in the real world -- specifically, Hong's affair with actress Kim Min-hee and the Korean media's harsh treatment of the couple -- to move the director ina radically different direction. Gone is the fixation on male humiliation, for the most part. Gone is the use of bifurcation as repetition, a study in perspective and a referendum on truth. In fact, by and large, gone are men altogether. To paraphrase an earlier Hong title, woman has turned out to be the future of this man.
And not just any woman. Kim Min-hee, Hong's former lover, plays Young-hee, an actress who has been going through a very public adultery scandal and is trying to get her life back on track. Kim, who rightly won the Best Actress prize at the Berlinale, is not playing herself, but is clearly drawing on her own experience for the role. She is both distraught over the negative attention that her private life has caused, and still mourning for the end of the relationship itself. As she confides to friends, she is still in love with Sang-won (Moon Sung-keun), the director from whom she has split.
In the first part of On the Beach, Young-hee is in Hamburg, trying to get as far from the Korean scandal as possible. She's travelling with her friend Ji-young (Seo Young-hwa), who has friends in the German town (Mark Peranson and Bettina Steinbruegge). As in several Hong films, the awkwardness of translation is explored, particularly the double-speech of communicating through a translator. But Young-hee takes the opportunity to practice some English. She expresses a desire to live more honestly.
In the second act, Young-hee is back in South Korea, specifically her hometown of Gangnueng, where she is attended to by Ji-young and male friend Chun-wo (Kwon Hae-hyo). Staying at a beachfront hotel, Young-hee begins to process exactly what has happened to her, away from the media spotlight and away from Sang-won. In one crucial sequence, she is lying on the beach, appreciating the activity around her, when a strange man picks her up and carries her away as though she were so much flotsam.
Eventually Young-hee has the opportunity to confront Sang-won in a bar. He is in town on a shoot, relaxing at the bar with some crew members. (I missed this detail; Ryan Wu kindly pointed it out.) When she presses him, explaining what their break-up did to her, Hong provides us with the film's first real moment of male perspective, and while it is vulnerable and jarring, it is not embarrassing. Sang-won breaks down, telling her that he too has yet to get over the end of their relationship. He reads her a passage from a short story that he thinks sums up their affair, trying hard not to cry. And that's that.
Hong doesn't zoom in, instead maintaining a discrete distance. The scene is shot in a single take, the actors playing off one another with a rare emotional synchronicity. The others gathered around the table, including Ji-young, look uncomfortable, but not in the usual sense. They recognize that like us, they are witnesses to a private moment, but one that paradoxically could only happen out in the open.
Hong ends the film with Young-hee lying on the beach, at night, alone. But why? She is in the same position, maybe even the exact same place, she was in her dream, when her ability to commune with the vastness of the ocean was violated by that same featureless man -- the time man, the window-washer, the spirit of Death or possibly just complete socio-patriarchal control. Whatever he is, reality or mental projection, he is gone now. Having faced Sang-won, the mysteries of the future lay before her.