Woman on the Beach
Where Hong Sang-soo’s dramas differ from Eric Rohmer’s, other than all the ways that come with being Korean not French, is notably in the egotism mitigated by irony of having one the main characters in his movies often happen to be a handsome, hunky famous director. In this one it’s a “Director Kim,” as he’s respectfully addressed (Kim Joong-rae, played by Kim Seung-woo) who goes to the somewhat sterile environment of the semi-deserted Shinduri beach resort on Korea’s west coast with his production designer, Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) in hopes of ending a creative block and penning the treatment for his next film. Won brings along a girlfriend, composer Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung, a former TV star) and competition gets blatantly going when Director Kim takes Moon-sook aside and frankly says he’s interested in her and asks her whether she’d prefer him over the designer, given a free choice.
The blatancy of Joong-rae’s authority is underlined by his being older, better-looking, physically bigger and stronger-looking, and possessed of a deeper voice. In comparison Won's a mild, slightly nerdy fellow. But despite that, Joong-rae’s not an out-and-out winner. He's comically chauvinistic in the way he damns the lady’s music with faint praise. And in the time that follows he proves to be neurotic and indecisive, stuffing his hands in his jeans and wiggling around on his legs with comic unease. Moon-sook’s dating men when living in Germany he admits is a turn-on for temporary dating, but the opposite for a long-term relationship. He has a serious hangup about mating with a woman who's experienced. Like a good Eric Rohmer character, he hesitates and they discuss. Moon-sook winds up saying that he's wonderful to her as a director, but in other ways just "a typical Korean man."
Hong’s stories often refer to sex and show couples in bed, but they aren’t erotic and characters rarely go all the way. Kim and Moon-sook do however begin with some long kisses on the beach that evening.
At another point Director Kim has a violent outburst of anger at a restaurant the trio enters because the owners are half asleep when they come in, and Chang-wook gets equally over-the-top in anger over the injustice of this and insists Kim must apologize. This seems random, except to show that both men have little contorl over their male egos, and tend to flail about, while the lady remains cool and composed.
In spite of everything Moon-sook becomes fascinated with Kim and they spent a night in an empty hotel room, but the next day Kim says it’s too quiet for him to work and they all leave Shinduri. Two days later Kim’s back on his own though, and leaves a phone message with Moon-sook, regretting his indecisiveness. He “interviews” a woman he runs into who “reminds” him of Moon-sook and takes her up to the same room he was in two nights earlier. Things get complicated when Moon-sook herself reappears and has a drunken emotional outburst outside the room. The new woman eventually feels hurt and abandoned too. In the midst of all this there’s a cute dog that gets abandoned by a mysterous couple, and Director Kim pulls an “unused muscle” and is temporarily disabled. Lots of snacking and drinking to a drunken state accompanies all these developments. By himself and with his leg semi-paralyzed Kim somehow turns out the film treatment. The relationships seem unresolved, but Moon-sook is by herself at the end leaving Shinduri again in her little car, which symbolically gets stuck in the sand and then gets out again so she can drive off on her own, free.
Woman on the Beach differes from previous Hong films in presenting its few main characters in the relative isolation of this new, somewhat drab resort during a cold spring season. The atmosphere is well used and the scenes are vivid. This film of Hong’s is perhaps even more inconclusive than most, and a bit long, but the rhythms of the conversations and the clarity of the blocking and editing arouse one’s admiration and this, like all Hong’s films, is original and watchable and will not disappoint his fans – which include the selection committee of the Film Society of Lincoln Center: they’ve been choosing his latest film as one of the NYFF's primary offerings every year for the last three years in a row. It's also true that Hong's improvisational way of working always results in fluid.
©2006 Chris Knipp