Though notoriously taciturn about his personal life, Hong Sang-soo has a way of putting it all on display in his movies. His latest, On the Beach at Night Alone, stars his muse and real-life partner, Kim Min-hee; their romance inspired a lot of Korean tabloid gossip the past couple of years, since at the start of it Hong was married. The new film, like most of Hong’s, invites speculation: Kim’s character, Young-hee, finds herself in a relationship with a married filmmaker, who, when the subject of adultery comes up, asks why two people in love should be considered immoral.
The prolific filmmaker has shown three features in festivals this year alone (including Claire’s Camera and The Day After, which served as a nice companion piece to On the Beach during the New York Film Festival). On the Beach at Night Alone, which gets its U.S. release on November 17, is perhaps his most personal yet. Many will point to it as the pinnacle of Hong’s filmography so far, as it boasts stellar performances and familiar Hong trademarks like dual storylines (he filmed the first half in Germany and the latter in South Korea), as well as a more spiritual and melancholic investigation of his recurring themes of love and regret. Hong pulls all this off without sacrificing his fondness for a good gag. During NYFF this year, I sat down with the South Korean auteur to talk about religion, Korean snacks, and just how personal his movie really is.
There’s a religious theme in On the Beach and The Day After. Would you consider yourself religious?
There are important things in life that we cannot really explain, and so we make up some explanation. There are two ways to go: Become nihilistic, or start talking with someone who’s presumably in control of everything.
Yeah, praying. I went through all those states, trying to make up some explanation. I have to acknowledge our inability to explain. But I always wanted to talk to someone. I don’t go to church or accept any established religion, but I just said to myself, “Why not? I want to talk to him or her.” I guess it’s not a gendered thing, it’s an absolute thing. It feels good. I always had an inclination to talk to God, but as I grew up, I learned to negate the falseness of the establishment. I’m directly talking to someone, and it feels so natural. Why should I give up this natural desire?
In On the Beach at Night Alone, you start with Kim Min-hee’s character in Hamburg, Germany. When you put someone in a foreign country (like you did with Isabelle Huppert in In Another Country), what do you think that reveals about their character?
I mean, even though when they are in their own country, it reveals something about them. They constantly reveal something, as I reveal myself constantly.
Your films often use two different timelines, a reality and a dream sequence, or women who are doppelgängers. What about this idea of duality fascinates you?
I think comparison is a very basic instinct for us. But we compare all the time. Comparison is very important. If we keep comparing, we end up making up a value system which is not appropriate for life, but sometimes we compare and come out with a better understanding. But we keep comparing, but maybe that’s why I do that.
At the end of the movie, Young-hee says, “Personal stories are so boring.” And this movie feels so personal. Was that a self-critique? And how does it feel watching Kim Min-hee deliver that line?
When someone makes a so-called personal film that is boring to other people, then the filmmaker will be criticized. But if someone makes a personal film that’s so interesting to other people, then that someone will praise you. I try to use my own material as much as I can, but when I make a film, I know I’m making a film, I’m not making a comment or an autobiographical representation of my life. You don’t have to worry about distinction — worry about how to balance and harmonize all these elements, how you think about rhythm and trying to be honest in spirit. That’s the important thing. When you see films of mine, people tend to think it’s very personal [laughs].
I have to ask about the window wiper in the movie (there is a gag where a random man is seen wiping a hotel window for a hilariously long time). Why was that scene so long? Don’t get me wrong — it was so funny, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
He was my cinematographer in the first part of the movie. I brought two people to Germany: one boom man with a recorder, and the other was the cinematographer. And I had two other assistants. I didn’t bring any male actors. When they arrived I wanted to test the camera, so we went to the park and I let them walk while I was looking at them through the camera lens. Then I told the cameraman, “Can you just go up to the main actors and ask them what time it is, in Korean?” I was holding the camera. I didn’t know it would be the first part of the movie, and I didn’t know how to use it. I was kind of stuck there. I came back to Korea, and I wanted to shoot something. I asked people how they felt about this part I shot in Germany, and they liked it, so I decided to use it as the first part. Then I started shooting something in Gangneung, [South] Korea, and connected it.
And the cinematographer made another cameo in Korea?
Yes. In the second part, the cinematographer was different. I brought the first cinematographer and he already guessed he might be used in a scene again. He had all these costumes — he was expecting it. So I came up with this wiping-window scene.
Do you give your actors a lot of room to breathe with the script?
They’re following the script, but how they interpret it is up to them. I give them little direction. Only rarely do I feel obliged to do that. Sometimes I’ll monitor them line by line. Usually I give them very little direction. Usually I like how they do it. Only when they are going in a very wrong direction I tell them, “Maybe that’s not the way to go.”
You’re very well-received overseas. Do you still pay attention to critical reception in Korea?
I read some reviews. I consider some opinions very important.
Do you feel like Korean reviews are too muddled with your personal life?
These days, yes. It’s true. But, you know, what can I do? I have to just go through this period.
I know you mentioned wanting to shoot in the United States also…
Someone asked me that in the audience. I studied in the U.S., so I have some personal memories I think can be used as material.
I go to parties here where people bring soju, and they say it’s because of your movies. Are you actually a big fan of the drink?
No, I used to drink soju all the time, but I stopped drinking it three or four years ago. From that point I changed to makkuli [Korean rice wine].
I noticed you have Max beer in this movie and a comment about beer being better in Korea.
That’s my personal opinion.
Korean beer is really bad!
Now it’s getting better. I don’t drink beer, but people say Korean beer is getting better.
Another food detail I love is when Kim Min-hee is cooking Spam. I love Spam, Koreans love Spam, but people here think it’s gross.
It tastes great! Eat it with rice and kimchi.
I know you’re friendly with Claire Denis. Have you seen her new film, Let the Sunshine In? I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people call it “Claire Denis’s Hong Sang-soo film.”
Really? I never heard that. Really? OK, I really need to see the film.