Intention and Circumstance: With Hong Sangsoo in Hamburg
Cinema Scope’s Mark Peranson recounts his experience working on (and acting in) the Korean master’s On the Beach at Night Alone
As part of Cinema Scope’s participation in the MDFF Selects series at TIFF, I’ve been tasked with explaining the circumstances that led to me working on Hong Sangsoo’s On the Beach at Night Alone, likely the greatest film shot in the Hanseatic city of Hamburg since Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. I find it odd that Hamburg isn’t featured more as a location in films, German or otherwise. While the weather is undeniably gray and gloomy in winter — a trait that was rather excessively emphasized in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s premature swan song A Most Wanted Man, which a cinephile travel blogger notes makes Hamburg look like “a really miserable, grim place” — a Berlin-based filmmaker friend of mine once told me that he could put a camera in literally any location in Hamburg, start rolling, and he’d have a more interesting shot that anything he could film in the capital. I’m not sure On the Beach at Night Alone proves that point (and the claim in the film that Hamburg is “the most livable city in the world” is clearly spurious), but history is an equal product of intention and circumstance.
I’m going to leave aside recounting the story of what brought Hong to Hamburg in late 2015 — anyone with an internet-capable device, or a subscription to Korean Teen Beat, can figure out the personal reasons that motivated him to want to shoot something outside of Korea at this time (though frankly it’s none of my business, and certainly none of yours either).
When Hong told me that he wanted to shoot a film in Germany, and, in the most vague way, that he wanted me to help, I figured there would be some drinking involved (and indeed, there was), but I didn’t know that I would end up being one of the four members of the crew, and that the bald back of my head would also play a featured part on screen. Over the course of a week of shooting I ended up performing a myriad of basic, uninteresting film-set chores, such as slating the beginning of scenes, holding an umbrella over the filmmaker’s head (and carrying those umbrellas), and more. I was not credited for my assorted duties — which would have amounted to a title something along the lines of “assistant director” — but I did get paid, which is more than I can say for my participation in every other film I’ve worked on, including my own.
1. EXT – STREET MARKET
Hong shot for the most part chronologically, and I took this picture above during the rolling of the first shot, on a street market located in the neighbourhood of Winterhude; later in the week we went back to the market, where Hong shot an unbroken, 15- to 20-minute dialogue-free take with Kim wandering through the stalls, which would make for a pretty interesting short film in itself.
Many of the film’s locations were in close proximity to each other, which is a familiar mode for Hong. His films shot in Seoul largely take place in locations within walking distance — e.g., the restaurant in Our Sunhi is around the corner from the bar called Novel in The Day He Arrives — and it’s possible to follow Kim Minhee’s path through Hamburg in On the Beach at Night Alone in a day.
The fact that many of the film’s key locations — including the foggy Stadtpark and the bookstore/piano school Buecherkiste, about which more below — also happened to be within a few blocks of where Hong was staying (close to the Goldbekufer) was not a function of laziness on the filmmaker’s part. Hong is very secure in his knowledge of what he wants to depict in the world, and what he can take from it. Besides a few other locations that we brought him to in Hamburg (such as the beach featured in the final scene), Hong showed little interest in exploring the city or seeing typical tourist sites — a predilection that also explains why he shot Claire’s Camera in Cannes yet only ventured into the festival to shoot at the Finecut booth in the Marche. He is completely assured that he has found the correct way to interpret and portray reality, and this is one reason why so many viewers believe his films resemble each other so deeply.
2. EXT – BUS STOP
Everything on Hong’s set was treated with the utmost professionalism, which is expected from a Korean production. The unique aspects of a Hong Sangsoo set relate to his production methods, which he rather honestly described last year in a dialogue at the New York Film Festival. Ever since Oki’s Movie, Hong begins the process of filmmaking with no screenplay, only actors and a number of designated locations. Each day, he wakes up early in the morning and starts to write the day’s scenario. When he’s finished, he delivers the dialogue to the actors, who have a ridiculously brief amount of time to memorize their lines. (All the dialogue is to be delivered as written, as Hong does not allow improvisation from his actors. The one scene I was on set for during the shooting of Claire’s Camera took around ten takes and two hours to complete, because poor Jung Jinyoung couldn’t get the lines right.) Then, once the scene has been blocked, he shoots, with the first take amounting to a kind of filmed rehearsal. Interestingly, after each take the crew and the actors gather behind the camera and watch the playback, with Hong commenting on this or that when needed.
What this brief rundown doesn’t indicate is that, at least in my experience on Beach, the writing process never went as smoothly as desired. Every morning I’d get a phone call from Hong around 9:00am, telling me that he was still writing and that he’d call back in an hour to let me know if he was ready. At 10:00am I’d get the same phone call, again promising a check-in an hour later. Hong would then give the final okay some time after 11:00am — which meant that there would only be five hours of daylight with which to shoot.
At this point I’d get on the bus and head 15 minutes away from my apartment in Eppendorf to Winterhude, encounter Kim Minhee frantically trying to master her dialogue, and the shooting would begin. This process gave me an immense respect for Hong’s actors, especially Kim, who never once made a mistake and who delivered once fiercely intelligent take after the other. At most we shot four or five takes of each scene, mostly to allow for some variation in the delivery of the lines.
As mentioned above, the Hamburg scenes were for the most part shot chronologically, with Hong paying even more attention than usual to both the progression of time and the practical realities of navigating a city. One example: how to get Kim’s character Younghee and her friend Jeeyoung (Seo Yeounghwa) from the latter’s apartment to the Kunstverein? As his characters would have to take a bus, Hong first shot a scene with the actresses arriving at a bus stop, which Hong carefully framed so as not to include the logos that indicated where exactly we were shooting. When a bus arrived, we all piled on and beelined towards the back, which, luckily, was empty.
Shooting on public transportation without permission is, I’m pretty sure, illegal, so you need to do it fast: a shot was set up rapidly, and I physically blocked any other random passengers from intruding. I believe we went through the scene two or three times during the 10- or 15-minute ride. At one point Kim improvised an action for the lovesick Younghee, drawing a heart with her finger on the fogged-up glass; it’s a shame this didn’t make the final cut, but Hong told me that the camerawork was too shaky (which, frankly, was not the slightest bit surprising, as it was being filmed gonzo-style on a moving bus).
3. INT – KUNSTVEREIN IN HAMBURG
While we made the happy discovery that one did not require any permits to shoot in the city’s parks, cafes or public spaces so long as the presence of the crew did not obstruct traffic or public movement, I had the idea to insure ourselves against any potential complaints by claiming that the film was being shot as part of the 200th anniversary of the Kunstverein in Hamburg, where my partner Bettina Steinbruegge works. So we arranged for a letter of intent from the Kunstverein, and planned to shoot there. (Aside: the Kunstverein restaurant is a location in A Most Wanted Man, though that film’s editing makes it look like it’s on the Reeperbahn.)
The image above is from a deleted scene that was shot in the Kunstverein, which almost precisely replicated Hong’s first visit to the gallery himself, right down to getting the same lady at the front to unlock the door in the same manner. (That is to say, the actions replicated reality, but the dialogue was fictional.) After I got to stand and pour water while (as I found out later) the two actresses were making fun of me, we shot another scene in the exhibition space, where at the time the Kunstverein had on a group exhibit called Malerei, Böse (or “Painting, Evil”). Hong decided that he wanted Kim Minhee to look at a particular painting, and he chose the one below by Martin Eder — which, although it didn’t make the final cut, perhaps gives some further insight into how Hong conceived of the character’s psyche.
4. EXT – BOOKSTORE
We shot twice at the small bookstore below, which was run by a man named Karl Feder — an amateur painter who also gave piano lessons to children — who was battling cancer at the time of the shooting. The bookstore was one of the locations Hong found himself, not coincidentally due to the fact that it was around the corner from where he was staying.
The scene inside the store was easy enough to shoot, but when we started to film the women arriving from the street, we were disrupted by a man shouting at us. With whatever German I could muster, I figured out that this retiree wasn’t pleased to see a film crew working in his neighbourhood, and he was threatening to call the Polizei because, I gathered, he didn’t like that we were photographing his car. I asked which of the 20 cars parked on the street was his, and said that we would gladly refrain from filming it. But he was having none of it, and did indeed call the police. Two officers showed up, and summarily dismissed this crank from our presence once I updated them on the permit information found on the Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein website, and showed them the letter from the Kunstverein. (I earned my money that day.)
When Hong returned to Hamburg for a few days after On the Beach at Night Alone premiered at the 2017 Berlinale, he went back to the bookstore and discovered that Karl had passed away, as the store was closed and a small arrangement of flowers had been placed in the window. There’s a tribute to Karl in Claire’s Camera, in the scene where Isabelle Huppert’s Claire tells Kim Minhee’s Manhee about her late husband, who ran a bookstore, taught music, and recently died of cancer.
5. INT – APARTMENT
Before the shoot began, Hong had informed Bettina and I that at a certain point we would be called upon to act in the film. The characters he devised for us cleaved close to our real-life personalities (well, hers more than mine), and our featured scene was shot in our own apartment — though for whatever reason Hong had seen fit to give our characters the stage names “Lillian” and “Paul.” As Hong never would translate any of the other dialogue in the script for us, I was never sure exactly how central to the story our characters were, or what exactly was going on in the scene we appeared in (i.e., I had no idea I was being made fun of on camera for three days).
On the day of the apartment shoot, the crew showed up, dialogue in hand, and we had about 15 minutes to memorize the scene. Hong gave absolutely no direction to Bettina and myself in terms of how to perform the scene, and he even allowed some leeway in terms of the dialogue — I suppose because he figured I had as good a handle on English as the next guy. To my delight, I was the only person drinking in the scene — being as we were having a delicious Italian meal, wine was the beverage of choice — which checked off one line item from my bucket list. (Everyone speaks about the soju-drinking scenes in Hong’s films, but it’s my theory that the tenor of each individual film is dependent on the type of alcohol drunk, a selection which has recently expanded to include not only soju, but beer and makkoli. When Hong makes a whiskey film, let me tell you, that’s going to be wild.)
The scene was shot around noon, and as we did three or four takes I was getting a bit tipsy by the end, but I still managed to remember all the lines, which is all that matters. As you can see in the script above, there is a bit of dialogue that did not make the final cut, as for whatever reason Hong decided to trim the end of the scene — thereby depriving us of more screen time, for which I will never forgive him.
6. EXT – BEACH
It’s probably not common knowledge that there are beaches in Hamburg along the Elbe in the west part of Blankenese, and that the city itself has more canals than Venice. Soon after he arrived in Hamburg, Bettina and I took Hong to the beach, just because. (Falkensteiner Ufer happens to be about a ten-minute walk from the villa on the Elbchausse that Gerard Blain’s character inhabits in The American Friend.) When I took the picture above after the beach shoot had wrapped, I wasn’t aware — nor, at that point, was the director — that I had captured the aftermath of what would be the final scene in the film’s Hamburg section.
The next day my phone rang at 9:00am, and I answered it expecting the usual brief message from Hong saying that he was still writing and cautioning me to not get on the bus just yet. But that morning, a twist was in store: Hong said that he had stayed up all night looking at the footage and had decided, for a number of reasons I won’t get into, that after a day off and two further days of pickups, the rest of the film would be shot in Korea. (I guess I didn’t mention that he planned to make the entire film in Hamburg.) Intention thus met circumstance, and the rest is history — though maybe in another Hongian reality the film ends with a 20-minute take of Kim Minhee walking alone through a Hamburg street market.
Mark Peranson is the editor and publisher of Cinema Scope Magazine, Head of Programming for the Locarno Film Festival, and director of the features Waiting for Sancho (2008) and La última película (2013, co-directed with Raya Martin).