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Searching for Kim Min-hee

The Korean actress was poised for superstardom—until her relationship with director Hong Sang-soo made headlines. Have the repercussions of the scandal put a ceiling on how far she can go?

Getty Images/IMDb/Ringer illustration

“What I want is to live in a way that suits me,” says Young-hee, played by Kim Min-hee in On the Beach at Night Alone. Young-hee is an actress whose affair with a married director has left her in turmoil, and thus prone to melodramatic proclamations. As we close the season in which we reflect on the past year’s best film performers, Kim’s vulnerability as Young-hee stands out most in my mind. Film Comment called the performance one of 2017’s “most fully rounded pictures of a complex female personality, sexually and emotionally aware of who she is, and seeing her struggles through for better or worse.”

In real life, Kim is in fact in an extramarital relationship with an older filmmaker—On the Beach at Night Alone director Hong Sang-soo, who left his longtime wife for the actress, 21 years his junior. Since rumors of the affair first surfaced in 2016, it has been the subject of much tabloid furor in Korea. Both parties faced severe criticism for their adulterous romance, but the harshest words—homewrecker, seductress, and the like—were reserved for Kim. (Hong’s divorce proceedings commenced in December and have yet to be resolved.)

The ever-prolific Hong has already made five films with Kim in just over two years, including a pair of recent releases: Grass, Hong’s 22nd movie in 22 years, world premiered in Berlin last month, and Claire’s Camera opens in New York on Friday. In Claire’s Camera, Kim stars as (surprise) the spurned ex-lover of an older director who, fired from her film sales job, buddies up to a French stranger played by Isabelle Huppert. The lightweight comedy was filmed over nine days during the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. In Grass, Kim plays a woman secretly documenting the eavesdropped conversations of random couples at a coffee shop. Both films are just over an hour long and seem more like quick experiments than proper features. As such, like much of Hong’s recent output, they will do the international festival rounds, earn a smattering of positive reviews by foreign press, be largely ignored in Korea, and then disappear into the IMDb ether.

In nearly all of her movies with Hong, Kim plays a version of the “other woman” to an older man. But of their collaborations, On the Beach at Night Alone, while not exactly biographical, feels the most substantive and revelatory. Kim won the Best Actress award at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival for her role on the heels of her thrilling turn as an unhappy heiress in The Handmaiden the previous year. At the time, director Park Chan-wook described Kim as Korea’s most coveted actress, and she has certainly become its most internationally acclaimed. But now, when she might be spreading her wings as an A-list star in Korea, the fallout from her relationship with Hong has essentially reduced her to an indie filmmaker’s muse. The Hong affair has boosted Kim’s global art-house credibility while turning her into a pariah back home. Have the repercussions of the scandal put a ceiling on how far she can go?

Before her relationship with Hong, you might not have guessed that Kim would become an indie darling. Her early career trajectory was fairly typical for a popular Korean actress. She was discovered as a model, then was cast in a handful of TV dramas, beginning in 1999 when she was 16. Soon after, she graduated to the big screen. Her first films were generic commercial fare, a collection of broad comedies and textbook thrillers that called for a willowy young beauty. A hint of Kim’s cleverness could be gleaned from her appearance in the 2009 mockudrama Actresses. The film—in which actresses of varying ages, all playing slight caricatures of their real-life selves, gather for a Vogue pictorial—offers some keen insights on the plight of women in the Korean film industry. (It’s basically like Hollywood, except 50 years ago.) Kim, who was 27 at the time, comes off as strikingly cognizant of how her appearance can hold sway over other people. She’s like a budding superhero who has just grasped the extent of her powers.

Claire’s Camera
Jeonwonsa Film Co.

By the time of her first collaboration with Hong in 2015, Kim was established as a leading lady, as much for her starring roles as for her fashion sense and dating exploits. She had begun exploring the boundaries of her talent beyond ensemble rom-coms. “I love films about characters with checkered lives,” she said in 2012 while promoting the dark mystery Helpless, a Korean box-office hit. A few years later, Kim made her first art-house turn in Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then, in which she plays an aspiring painter who is the object of infatuation of a middle-aged director. “Ms. Kim slides nimbly from demure to obnoxious,” wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times. Like most Hong films, Right Now, Wrong Then was well-reviewed but little seen, grossing just under $550,000 at the domestic box office.

In the summer of 2016, Kim’s fame—and notoriety—ramped up to another level. On June 1, after much anticipation, The Handmaiden was released in Korea and quickly dominated the domestic box office. As Lady Hideko, Kim was the film’s breakout star. Playing a complex role that required the seduction of men and a woman in two different languages—and some of the most erotic scroll readings ever captured on film—Kim imbued Hideko with a tenuous mix of forwardness and fragility.

Just weeks after The Handmaiden hit Korean theaters, reports emerged that Kim had started dating Hong while shooting Right Now, Wrong Then. As sordid rumors circulated about the director’s extramarital relationship, the public backlash was swift and unforgiving—and Kim bore the brunt of the damage. With his own production company and a bigger reputation overseas than at home, Hong could hardly have his career upended by criticism in his country. But for Kim, who had commercial appeal, the scandal closed her off from potential work in the mainstream.

“You can’t justify the start of a human’s feelings to a moment. It’s true in reality, too,” Kim once said. It was an interview in advance of The Handmaiden, when her romance with Hong was yet to be revealed. She’s given few interviews or spoken publicly in Korea since, which hasn’t stopped people from criticizing her. Weeks before On the Beach at Night Alone came out in Korea last March, despite Kim’s success in Berlin and positive festival buzz, the film had received a flood of negative online reviews—based on the plot synopsis alone. To those who actually saw the film, On the Beach could be interpreted as not only an admission of guilt to the public by the director but also a mea culpa, from Hong to Kim. But for those inclined to prejudge, Kim’s scarlet letter was already sewn in place.

“It’s still going on, but hopefully it will pass,” said Hong Sang-soo.

In his art, Hong is a master at depicting awkward conversations. In person, he proved adept at deflecting them. During the director’s visit to New York in October for the New York Film Festival, I asked him about the media reaction to his relationship with Kim. “Whatever it is, it’s happening,” he said, before pausing for a beat. “And it’s OK. As long as I can keep making films, as long as I can maintain my attitude toward film, it’s OK.”

Award Winners Press Conference - 67th Berlinale International Film Festival Photo by Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images

On the Beach at Night Alone, which was one of two films that Hong debuted at the NYFF, is notably the first Hong film to be linked directly to events in his real life.

To be sure, this is reality distilled through a Hong lens. Actor Kim Sang-kyung, a frequent Hong collaborator, once said the director “has an extremely developed sense to observe people talking and acting under ordinary circumstances.” In On the Beach, the affair is only discussed, not reenacted. Instead, the characters drink, smoke, and bicker; they regret, confess, and cry. At the center of every scene is Kim, whose revelatory performance as a fictional version of herself earned her honors in Berlin last March. She closed her acceptance speech by tearfully addressing her paramour: “The award I received here and the happiness that I feel are all thanks to Hong Sang-soo, my director in this movie. I honor you and I love you.”

In New York in October, however, the spotlight was focused solely on Hong. (The NYFF was held before revelations about Harvey Weinstein developed into an industry-wide reckoning with power imbalance and misconduct.) Over the course of a few days, I watched him speak at a post–On the Beach screening talk and a standing-room-only “Directors Dialogue.” Hong’s work has long been adored by festival types, and so the predictable questions were levied: about his seat-of-the-pants process (he writes the script for what he will film only on the morning of each shoot); his efficiency (productions might take only one week, and he uses 95 percent of what he films); and his technique (his unconventional use of camera zooms, sound, and symbolism). Hong answered each question deliberately in accented English. At 57, he exudes the mien of a wise, inscrutable auteur. “Reality can never be captured,” he said at one point when asked if his movies are based on real life. “We’re just living on a cloud.”

My request to interview Kim was declined, but I tried to pierce through the abstraction with Hong. Over the past two years, Hong and Kim have made five movies together. What meaning does it have for him to work so closely with her?

“She’s an actress, I’m a director,” said Hong. “We want to be together. We want to work together.”

I wondered aloud whether or not Kim’s career has been negatively affected by the outcry over the ongoing affair. The Handmaiden was the most widely distributed Korean film of all time, but since the scandal broke, she has only appeared in Hong’s relatively small art films.

“It’s someone else’s job to estimate damage or benefit—I don’t know,” replied the director. “Who can say about these things, absolutely? First things first: We want to work together, so that’s what we are doing. Estimation about those kinds of things is someone else’s job.”

On the Beach at Night Alone opens as Young-hee, still reeling from her doomed affair with a married director, visits a friend in Germany. She eventually returns to Korea, meeting a succession of older acquaintances who tiptoe around her predicament. At film’s end, she reunites with the director at a drunken group dinner, where he clumsily laments the end of their relationship. (There is an exchange of dialogue in that scene that reads differently than when I first saw the film: “Why are there so many pretty women around you, director?” Young-hee asks. “I love working with pretty people,” he replies.) In trademark Hong fashion, we’re left wondering if some of the narrative might only be taking place in the imagination of his main character.

On the Beach at Night Alone
The Cinema Guild

What feels very real, however, is the vulnerability and depth that Kim brings to her role. Over the course of the movie, we’ll hear other characters tell Young-hee she is “talented,” “smart,” “pretty,” “charming,” and a “great actress.” (Kim’s characters are often showered with compliments in Hong films.) She, in turn, calls herself “destructive,” though Korean netizens have called her much worse. At times, Young-hee appears resilient and defiant; at others, melancholy and hopeless. Throughout, she remains beguiling—to not only the men and women she meets in the movie, but also to the audience—in the specific way that beautiful, troubled, mysterious women are often perceived to be. If there were an American remake of On the Beach, I imagine it would star Kristen Stewart, or maybe Rooney Mara.

Her On the Beach character Young-hee might be at a crossroads, but there is nothing to suggest that Kim Min-hee isn’t doing exactly what she wants with her career. A few months after news of their affair leaked, there was a spurious report that the couple had decided “to separate for Kim Min-hee’s future.” But last March, Kim and Hong officially confirmed their love to the press. In the meanwhile, Kim has racked up more international award recognition, shot films with Hong at a breakneck pace, and traveled the festival circuit by his side.

It should be noted that all four of the Kim-Hong collaborations I’ve seen thus far have brought out interesting qualities in each other—particularly The Day After, in which a book publisher unsuccessfully attempts to satisfy the expectations of his mistress, his wife, and his new assistant, played by Kim. It is a classic Hong farce, shot in black and white, and Kim—moody, perceptive, and impenetrable as ever—is by far the most interesting character of the bunch. If she is going to make movies with only one director for now, at least it is a master who can write her plum, layered roles, even though they may veer toward a Korean variation of the manic pixie dream girl.

But Hong has other limits, in both budget and scope. At a time when mainstream Korean cinema has a decided lack of female protagonists, Kim seems capable of filling the void—and at age 36, she is squarely in her prime. Why not another period blockbuster with Park Chan-wook, or maybe a meaty role in Bong Joon-ho’s next project? How about an action flick, or an artsy horror part? (And maybe even a love interest closer to her own age?) For an actress of Kim’s prodigious talents, nothing feels too far out of range. At the moment, however, with the smoke from her relationship with Hong hardly cleared, her reacceptance in the Korean film industry doesn’t feel likely. An anonymous Korean film insider claimed that recent attempts to cast Kim in commercial movies were thwarted because either the investment fell through or the actress herself refused the part. “It’s disappointing because it feels like we lost a great actress,” the official said. “Her absence is even more unfortunate because of the lack of leading female actresses.” Whether by choice or by industry exile, Kim’s career is now thoroughly attached to Hong’s.

In a 2006 interview, Hong said: “Men embrace women thinking that she is the only savior, but are nervous because they can already visualize the end even with their eyes closed.” Perhaps the filmmaker’s newfound love with the actress will overcome such a fatalistic outlook. In the end, one can only hope that Kim will continue to live in a way that suits her, and that her career deserves.

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