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The Waves, The Sand, and Two Lovers in the Middle Of…

Two Korean girls spend their night on the beach, in this non-narrative, meditative and inquisitive experimentation with cinematic minimalism - from the Rebels With a Cause Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


The South Korean film, The Waves, The Sand, and Two Lovers in the Middle Of… (Lained, liiv ja kaks armastajat keset…, 2023) opens like a poem about two people, the one of whom loves the other more. We catch only a glimpse of the pair lying in bed together, superimposed over water. The next time we see them, they’re silhouettes on the beach. Gradually they emerge, which is fitting, given the film’s emphasis on water.

Director Jiyeong Hong’s minimalist film centres on the premise of an unfolding love story between two girls, Youngjin and Jaeyeon. From this initial concept, Hong experiments with cinematic minimalism, that is meditative and inquisitive.

In the absence of narrative, meaning and purpose need to be discovered. This is an oversimplification, because narrative cinema needs to either express thematic intent, or its audience to read into the story, to mean something – it’s never a given. Watching The Waves, The Sand, and Two Lovers in the Middle Of…, what should the audience make of the film? What’s its purpose? Films like this challenge the emphasis on a clear expression of intent that provides context, or they disregard our need to understand. Hong dismisses the necessity of a coherent story, and instead explores film as an artistic medium. She steers her film towards the experience of viewing paintings and photography. Through her approach to the camera’s gaze, the narrative, dialogue, music and performances, she asks us to scrutinise or critique the image with greater independence than film usually allows.

The Waves, The Sand, and Two Lovers in the Middle Of…, seeks out this experimental space, where the visual language is liberated from formalistic ideas. It’s the type of film that returns you to those wandering hours and days of childhood, where time was there to be wasted and sometimes, you’d even get lost in the boredom of inactivity. These are the thoughts the film conjures up, or maybe it’s the way the director imitates the wandering eye, and how we pick out details – seaweed on the beach, the shape of the shells, or the feeling of water swelling at our feet. It echoes an unconscious and silent internal observation, where our eye is drawn to light and shapes, with the retro grain of a videocamera image that creates a conflict between whether this is a film, or a collection of personal recordings.

Hong asks us to think about the relationship between images and words. That might be a stretch too far, an act of forcibly projecting or assigning meaning. Is the story the words appear to be trying to tell, less ambiguous than the images? There are moments when they feel as if they belong to two separate consciousnesses, and in other moments, they are united as one.

The words guide us through an unconventional love story. They emerge from a distinct voice, and while in one breath are about the couple, they also sound like pointed questions. It’s as if the film is a trojan horse, a minimalist work about a couple, yet it’s really about all of us. The images that can be random, as well as an observation of their love story, emphasise both their world and the wider one.

Hong throws in some surreal imagery, distorting what feels real with the fantastical. The director’s playfulness compliments her interrogation of cinema’s language and form – what it can be at its extremes. Whether she reaches that point is unclear, but the film is part of an interrogation or conversation with audiences about the ontology of cinema.

The Waves, The Sand, and Two Lovers in the Middle Of… just premiered in the Rebels With a Cause Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Paul Risker - 11-11-2023

While technically an English-based film critic and interviewer, Paul shows his political disgruntlement towards his homeland by identifying instead as a European writer. You’ll often find him agree...

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