Berlinale 2017 Diary #7
Hong, Glawogger + Willi, Veiel.
Conversations following this morning's screening of Hong Sangsoo's melancholic On the Beach at Night Alone, premiering today in Competition at the Berlinale, circled the all-too-obvious question: Are there parallels between the film and the recent tabloid-ready chapter in Hong's own life, and if so, to what degree do they matter? Very briefly, Hong and Kim Minhee, co-star of Right Now, Wrong Then, winner of the Golden Leopard in Locarno in 2015, had a thing which is now, apparently, over. Kim is front and center in On the Beach at Night Alone as Younghee, an actress currently hanging out in Hamburg to avoid the media spotlight back in Korea in the wake of, yes, an affair with a respected director. At this afternoon's press conference, Hong addressed the elephant in the room (see the clip), essentially allowing that autobiographical elements figure in all his screenplays but primarily as points of departure toward fiction.
So, all that aside, onto On the Beach at Night Alone, the film. There is no immediately recognizable structural ploy along the lines of the mixed up batch of letters in Hill of Freedom (2014) or the twice-told tale in Right Now, Wrong Then, but there may be something of the male bafflement at the puzzling nature of a woman's true character held over from Yourself and Yours (2016).
The opening section in Hamburg is its own chapter, the much shorter of two, each announced with simple title cards. Younghee is so taken with Hamburg she toys with the idea of a permanent move, maybe even sharing an apartment with a friend, Jeeyoung (Seo Younghwa), more than a few years her senior. Aching for the director she's fallen for, who may or may not arrive, Younghee seems to be seeking out the company of a substitute in her older and wiser (and self-admittedly less passionate and impulsive) friend. They walk parks, shop for books—and books, as companions, pastimes and vehicles of emotions too earnest to express on one's own figure throughout the film—and dine at the home of an American, played by Locarno programmer and Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson, and his German partner, Bettina Steinbrügge, director of Hamburg’s Kunstverein.
This section ends on a very odd and humorous note. A strange figure, a Korean man whose features are never clearly made out, originally approaches Younghee and Jeeyoungin a park to ask for the time. When he appears again, the women run off. And he's the punchline of Chapter 1, too. In Chapter 2, which takes place in Gangneung, he's a silhouette cleaning a floor-to-ceiling window, center frame, acutely visible to our eyes but ignored by all the characters in the room. To me at least, he remains a mystery.
Back with old friends in Gangneung, Younghee cuts loose one night after who knows how many glasses of soju. Opinions fly, voices are raised, men are assessed, then damned, a kiss is stolen. Further in, at another table laden with soju bottles and refilled glasses, the director himself appears. Younghee unleashes no direct accusations, but her anger is palpable. The director declares himself "wrecked" by what's transpired between them and then reads a passage that seems to formalize their separation. He tries to give her the book.
On the Beach at Night Alone—the title is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman—has one final twist for us that calls at least one earlier scene into question but leaves us dead sure of one thing: This chapter in Younghee's life is closed.
More from Michael J. Anderson, Neil Bahadur (Notebook), Jason Bechervaise (Screen), Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3.5/5), Pierce Conran (ScreenAnarchy), Mónica Delgado (desistfilm), Kenji Fujishima (House Next Door), David Jenkins (Little White Lies), Jessica Kiang (Playlist, A-), Eric Kohn (IndieWire, B+), Diego Lerer, Guy Lodge (Variety), Rory O'Connor (Film Stage, A-) and Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter). And Christopher Small interviews Hong for the Notebook.
In April 2014, Michael Glawogger, primarily known for his documentaries, though he also made a few narrative features, died in Liberia, having contracted malaria five months before. He was working on a film he'd consciously titled Untitled, having spoken (as he does in the trailer) of dreaming of "a film that never comes to rest." It's "about nothing" and "has no theme." He'd simply travel the world and film "everything I encounter." Editor Monika Willi, who worked with Glawogger (and continues to collaborate with Michael Haneke and others), has completed the film, one of the very best I've seen at this year's Berlinale.
Glawogger burned to seek out and capture life as it is lived in places overlooked by most media and filmmakers, some far off (Workingman's Death, 2005), others right under our noses (Whores' Glory, 2011). The opening is somewhat reminiscent of the first shot of Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson in that we see that shot being prepared; when all is ready, a loud crack sends cloud banks of birds flying up from a field.
From then on, the presences of Glawogger, cinematographer Attila Boa and, manning sound, Manuel Siebert are backgrounded as the team heads off on its travels. It's really a shame that "stunning" and "unbelievable" are so overused, because these worn out descriptors would really come in handy for me right about now. Children and goats swarm mounds of garbage at a landfill; skateboards as a means of transport through a nighttime market where the electricity falls out and, when it flips back on again, an entire city "oohs" and "ahhs"; wrestlers, their dark bodies patterned with patches of white sand; the skeletal structures of abandoned villages in the Balkans.
In voiceover, Fiona Shaw reads passages from Glawogger's notes, and occasionally composer Wolfgang Mitterer's tracks swell a tad theatrically, and there are moments when Untitled comes off a little too slickly—but then, Glawogger's earlier work could be that way, too. We can be immensely grateful to Monika Willi for giving us one more enthralling work from such a profoundly restless documentarian.
Why there's only one spot for a documentary in this year's Competition following last year's Golden Bear for Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea is a mystery we'll leave to those better versed in festival politics, but that spot should have gone to Untitled rather than to Andres Veiel's Beuys. Throughout the screening, something kept nagging at me: What's missing? What is the gaping hole at the center of this thing? Ah, of course! The art.
Beuys follows well enough the life of the man, Joseph Beuys, "universally celebrated as one of the most important and revolutionary European artists of the last century," as Gagosian would have it. A year ago, in a fine piece for the Guardian, Olivia Laing qualified "universally" a little: "A sculptor, teacher, political activist, pioneering environmentalist, self-styled shaman, alleged charlatan and proven liar, Beuys was among the greatest postwar artists; artists, that is, who grapple with the world that follows war."
In interviews, Veiel has said that he's at least partly intended to emphasize Beuys's humor and the ways it informed his art, political engagement and teaching. And there's plenty on Beuys's troubled relationships with the German Green party and the Düsseldorf Academy of Art as well as his boisterous lectures in New York. But while Veiel evidently filmed hours of talking heads and commendably whittled them down to just a few minutes here and there, no one in these interviews and few in the archival footage do more than scratch the surface of the work itself. It's all well and good for, say, Stanley Tucci to focus on the comedy of Alberto Giacometti's grunts and mumbles and let the art speak for itself in Final Portrait, but you'd think a project like Beuys would be all about contextualization and explication, maybe even enhanced with a range of interpretations of what it was that Beuys was up to.
And talk about slick. Veiel juxtaposes the grainy black-and-white (and occasional color) footage with transitions that glide across contact sheets before selecting an entry point into the next passage. You can sample the look and feel in the German television report on the doc embedded above.
More from Ryan Gilbey (Guardian, 2/5), Lee Marshall (Screen), Rene J. Meyer-Grimberg (Berlin Film Journal), David Mouriquand (Exberliner), Joseph Proimakis (Cineuropa), Boyd van Hoeij (Hollywood Reporter) and Jay Weissberg (Variety).