Master of the beautifully modulated and devastatingly melancholy romantic farce, Korean director Hong Sang-soo has been a New York Film Festival fixture for most of the 21st century. Back in the day, he’d have been a familiar art-house presence as well, but Woman on the Beach is only his second movie to receive a theatrical run.
Hong is nothing if not an auteur. There’s a sense that the 47-year-old, American-educated filmmaker has been repeating himself since his first Korean hit, the wistful, dryly comic Turning Gate (2002). But then compulsive repetition is one of his major themes. In Turning Gate, a romantically maladroit out-of-work actor embarked on successive failed relationships with two self-possessed women; its follow-up, Woman Is the Future of Man (2005), somewhat inverted the triangle to have a pair of thirtysomething urban intellectuals searching for the woman each loved and lost; the self-reflexive Tale of Cinema (2006) offered a case study in male idiocy, focusing on a former film student who believes that his hapless love life has been appropriated as material by a more successful classmate.
Steeped in similar jealousies, Woman on the Beach presents a pair of overlapping erotic triangles. Famous filmmaker Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo), a bit younger than Hong, is having difficulty finishing his latest script; he prevails on his production designer, Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo), to accompany him to the off-season seashore. Chang-wook insists on bringing along a date, the aspiring composer Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung). Initially diffident, she turns out to be an independent type who cracks up the director by breezily dismissing his hapless assistant: “By the way, he’s not my boyfriend.”
Hong is the most Frenchified of contemporary Korean directors. His tone is droll, his mode is detached, and the essential division in his world—as Manohla Dargis noted a few years ago in the Times—is not between North and South Korea but rather between men and women. Hong’s movies are predicated on awkward bullshit, symptomatic behavior, and careful camera placement. (Although his style is utterly his own, he has affinities not only with Eric Rohmer but Albert Brooks in his deadpan presentation of absurd antics.) Any of his films could be subtitled “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.”
Joong-rae’s incomprehensible script (something to do with a guy staying at a hotel who keeps hearing the same music wherever he goes) is soon overshadowed by the accident-prone director’s knack for precipitating real-life crises. He makes a scene at a local sushi joint as well as an inebriated pass at Moon-sook that includes a lengthy interview regarding the particulars of her love life during the five years she studied music in Germany. Then, because he can’t control himself, he launches into an extended tirade about Asian women and foreign men. “You’re different than your films,” Moon-sook observes. “You’re just another Korean man.” She sleeps with him anyway, and he flees back to Seoul the next day.
A structured series of understated, actor-driven riffs, Woman on the Beach is seamlessly episodic. As minor characters, including a dog, wander in and out of the action, the wintry beach comes to seem an existential landscape. This is particularly apparent in the movie’s second movement, when Joong-rae returns to the seashore a few days later and finds himself pursuing another young woman, Choi Sun-hee (Song Sun-mi), whom he believes resembles Moon-sook. It’s research: Joong-rae’s script has mutated into the story of his one-night affair. But that soon comes unhinged when, dislodging herself from a place in his imagination, Moon-sook returns to the beach, with predictably disruptive results.
Albeit not as textured as Hong’s past few films, Woman on the Beach is no less engrossing—a rueful tale of karmic irony, self-deceived desire, squandered second chances, and unforeseen abandonment. Is it also something of a confession? Hong’s alter ego can only create out of abject desperation and emotional chaos. At one point, the irate Joong-rae draws Moon-sook a diagram to illustrate his convoluted mental processes. The joke is that it’s the most baffling image in this immaculately constructed movie.