Woman on the Beach

Cold Comfort
By Jeff Reichert

Woman on the Beach
Dir. Hong Sang-soo, Korea, New Yorker Films

Through no fault of his own, the man who may well be Korea’s most talented contemporary filmmaker has by now earned himself a regular seat at the small unmarked table off to the side of film culture designated for those directors who traffic in “festival films.” His four most recent movies, Turning Gate, Woman Is the Future of Man, A Tale of Cinema, and now Woman on the Beach, have all found slots at the New York Film Festival and been met with requisite critical accolades, but none have received any significant U.S. distribution thus far—about as glaring an omission from theaters as I can currently pinpoint. All the fuss that’s been made in these pages and elsewhere about Andrew Bujalski and his sensitivity to the nuances of urban courtship could have been easily redirected to Hong; the younger American may well be on to something regarding city youth (or perhaps not, depending on your take), but whatever that may be is still vague and unarticulated. Hong’s a master filmmaker plumbing the romantic psychology of a slightly older generation with surgical precision and astounding formal rigor—isn’t this the stuff we’re supposed to go to the movies for? Placing Bujalski’s quick rise against the continued obscurity of Hong is one of those weird inequities of film culture that just about makes me ill, regardless of my feelings on the former’s films. I like Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation just fine, but when I conjure the bitter taste left by Turning Gate’s exclusion from the U.S., I just about want to take back every nice word I’ve said about them both.

Something like Korea’s answer to Eric Rohmer, Hong makes films that match the French master’s in wry knowingness about sex, desire, and humankind’s complicated maneuvering to achieve the former in order to satisfy the latter, but their outlook is more melancholy, their gaze often more cold and predatory. Both filmmakers are preternaturally tuned in to the play of light in nature and the awkwardness of intimacy (before, during, and after the act itself), resulting in sequences of striking beauty, shotthrough with complex emotion—Delphine searching for the “green ray” over the horizon in Summer, Moon-sook in her car, stuck in the sand at the end of Woman on the Beach. However, where many of Rohmer’s films feel as though they’ve sprung organically from the earth, Hong’s generally more the formalist (though Rohmer isn’t against a conceptual rubric: “Six Moral Tales,” “Comedies and Proverbs”), often splitting his narratives in half to switch perspectives or shed new light on a protagonist through the introduction of a new character or setting. Oh! Soo-jung: Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors is sundered midway so the director can replay the courtship battle over the titular virgin from the feminine perspective; Turning Gate follows its hero, Gyeung-soo, from one narrative of empty parasitic sex to a second without connecting either encounter except via a mythological overlay. Hong’s also gotten a reputation for his explicit yet desexualized intercourse which often isn’t too far from the painful rutting that occupies characters in a Dumont film. His oeuvre thus far (eight features) is impeccably elegant and populated with a host of intricately observed characters and socially bound interactions rendered through beautifully naturalistic performances.

Woman on the Beach revisits many of the tropes of earlier films, but represents a somewhat kinder, more whimsical Hong. The narrative is bifurcated around the exploits of Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo), a film director of ambiguous morals and intentions stumped on a script and in need of a weekend getaway. He convinces his nebbishy younger production designer comrade, Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo), to bring along his girlfriend, Moon-sook (Ko Hyeon-geong), for a weekend on the beach, but, given that we’re in a Hong Sang-soo film, it’s obvious even before we see the girl that this arrangement is headed for a bit of realignment. Not long into the trip Joong-rae and Moon-sook begin expressing mutual appreciation (he for her music, she for his films), and Chang-wook, ready third-wheel that he is, ably performs the role, growing increasingly shrill, vying for attention, and generally alienating himself. A long, static take of the trio looking out at the sea from the boardwalk is classic Hong and most clearly expresses the dynamic shift—Moon-sook is in the middle of the two men, turned toward a slouching Joong-rae, who bends towards her in easy intimacy, Chang-wook awkwardly half-leans over the railing to participate in conversation. A complicated play of glances, blushes, cajoling, and come-ons ensues and by the end of their drunken evening (Hong may well be the current master of hilariously alcohol-soaked meals), Joong-rae and Moon-sook ditch Chang-wook, sending him on a fool’s errand to the far end of the deserted beach, while they sneak into an empty beachfront condo for sex—which is surprisingly left unseen.

The next morning, Moon-sook leaves for the city (Chang-wook’s completely disappeared), Joong-rae promises to call on his return to Seoul, and Hong’s dubious hero strikes out—perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not—in search of his second mark. On a morning stroll he runs across a girl who looks not unlike Moon-sook, Sun-hee (Song Seon-mi), who’s vacationing nearby with a girlfriend. He asks to interview her under the auspices of research for his new film, but it isn’t long (after another drunken meal) before Sun-hee is weakly protesting his advances. As this second courtship speedily progresses, the first narrative comes crashing back in as Moon-sook returns to town unexpectedly. Small towns being small towns, a run-in with a local service station attendant produces the information that Joong-rae’s been spotted with a girl who looks like her, and she closes the day alone, drinking herself into a rage, and finally collapsing on the floor outside of the room Joong-rae and Sun-hee retired to. The romantic triangle is an important structural element in Hong’s films, and he’s here established an initial figure with two men vying for the attention of one woman, broken it apart, and set in place another where two women vie for the attentions of one man.

Forced to deal with the consequences of his actions—an unhappy thought for most of Hong’s men, and perhaps most men in general—Joong-rae hastily works to convince Moon-sook that he spent the night alone, but the town itself, off-season and desolate, pays him no favors. Joong-rae’s stuttering awkwardness during an impromptu street-corner meet-and-greet between the two women quickly gives up the game, and the filmmaker is forced to try and explain himself through a painful, ludicrously convoluted theory of images, visual perceptions, and actions that he half shouts, half spits at an increasingly distressed Moon-sook. A second viewing would probably reveal the degree to which his anguished monologue represents either satire of the culture of moviemaking or some kind of actual manifesto for Hong’s films (Given that Woman on the Beach’s most interesting construct is the use of the afterimage of one triangular dynamic to impact a second, it’s probably an equal mixture of the two), but Moon-sook’s not buying the tortured genius act. The final image of the film turns the whole enterprise on its head: just who is the real protagonist of Woman on the Beach anyway?

Though the narrative events seem to last about three days, Hong’s playful with time—we’re never quite sure how long it is before Moon-sook’s return, and in the small beach town, whitewashed by the wintry sun, it’s easy to imagine the blending of days and time stretching into infinity. Featuring the addition of a more picaresque sensibility to Hong’s filmmaking, Woman on the Beach is marked by a jaunty synthetic pop score that crescendos and recedes at key moments, a complete lack of nudity (if it weren’t for the unflinching gaze he casts upon intercourse in earlier films, this wouldn’t be worth mentioning), and nothing like that sense of piercing loneliness that ran through Turning Gate, or the potential for easy cruelty in the pursuit of orgasm as in Oh Soo-jung! It helps that Joong-rae turns out to be one of Hong’s least complicatedly caddish of characters allowing Moon-sook to fully take control of the film, undermining the art-academy objectification inflections of the title in favor of actual portraiture. Hong’s also added slow, overt zooms to his cinematic repertoire (I’m told these first enter in A Tale of Cinema) which only heighten the sense of surgical dissection and characters under the looking glass—zooming in on Joong-rae during a dinner sequence and lingering there only highlights the thinness of his charm. Their employment delicately straddles the silly/serious divide as well as the rest of the work, resulting a film that’s totally pleasurable, even if it feels a touch insubstantial. That’s okay—even if it doesn’t reach the grandiloquent heights of Turning Gate, Woman on the Beach may be Hong’s most open, straightforward stab at romantic comedy yet, always an able enterprise for great filmmakers (who’d begrudge Bresson Four Nights of a Dreamer?). If a warmer, more accessible work just so happens to help Hong Sang-soo find an audience, who am I to complain?

Running throughout Woman on the Beach is a small side narrative that involves a couple with a beautiful white dog who cross paths several times with our protagonists. Moon-sook is immediately enamored with the animal, whereas Joong-rae is terrified of dogs. Late in the film, we see the dog standing on the highway behind a car that begins to drive away. The dog gives chase, but eventually we see him back in the town alone. It’s a little bit that deftly negotiates the problems of wanting, having, needing, coupling, and ending in relationships. And of course, it’s a triangle, the dog and its owners, butting up against another trio, the dog, Joong-rae, and Moon-sook. Like Joong-rae’s theoretical design for living, these refractive, mirroring touches of Hong will be there for some to hang a reading on, and for others will just merely exist alongside the meat of the narrative. It’s this ingenuity of construction that’s Hong’s most valuable gift to his audiences: he’s a made a bunch of intricately worked-through films that never feel conceptually belabored. They could be just romantic comedies, but they exist as something much more. Like the major Marcel Duchamp work that he puns in the title of his third film, the questions of Hong Sang-soo’s film will always remain: How seriously should we take these pieces of conceptual baggage? And how serious is the filmmaker about them? An easy out, perhaps, but I’d imagine the answers are both much more simple, and much more complex, than they seem at first glance.