The plot of acclaimed South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s “On the Beach at Night Alone” seems ripped from the headlines involving actresses and older male directors. But not necessarily the headlines we’re thinking of.
In 2015, Hong became embroiled in a tabloid scandal when he left his wife for actress Kim Min-hee, best known to American audiences for her role in “The Handmaiden.” So here we have Hong’s new movie, in which Kim plays a young actress wounded by a love affair with a powerful director.
If that sounds uncomfortably close to real life, it is, especially given Kim’s often raw and unguarded performance. But Hong wraps this personal story in layers of obfuscation and misdirection that make for an odd and thought-provoking film.
“On the Beach at Night Alone” screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., the final film in the museum’s fall Spotlight Cinema series. The screening is free for museum members, $7 for all others.
The movie begins in Hamburg, where the actress Young-hee is visiting a friend. As the pair walk the streets, Young-hee talks about her married lover back home in South Korea. At one point, they’re accosted by a vaguely menacing young man in an overcoat who demands to know the time.
In the next section of the film (which even has its own opening credits), she is back home in South Korea, and clues in her conversations with friends reveal that the affair has ended. In one extraordinary long take, she gets drunk with friends and rails against the paucity of their own relationships compared to hers. “You‘re not qualified to love,” she insists over and over.
Later, she and two other friends are hanging out in a hotel room, where a man is seen on the patio outside frantically scrubbing the windows. Two things are weird about this. One, nobody in the room acknowledges the strange man outside. Two, it’s the same man Kim met in the park in Germany. Does he even exist, or is he a metaphor for death, or what?
“On the Beach at Night Alone” moves back and forth between long conversations, shot in single takes, to these surreal moments that are never explained. What binds it all together is the fierceness of Kim’s performance, who throughout refuses to deny her emotions even as they inevitably bend toward disaster.
The film ends with another long conversation, this one a final confrontation between Young-hee and the director (Moon Sung-keun), in which he weeps and claims, “I’ve been turning into a monster. I need to cast off my regrets.”
It’s riveting even if we don’t know the real-life echoes of Hong's life. Whether as an act of explanation, of self-flagellation, or something much murkier, “On the Beach at Night Alone” refuses to play by the conventional rules, of movies or of scandals.