Woman on the Beach (2007): Korean Hong Sang-soo’s Morality Tale

In “Woman on the Beach,” Korean writer and director Hong Sang-soo deals with similar themes as the French New Wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer. Rohmer’s morality fables are sophisticated explorations of courtship, love, and sex, underlined by myths, illusions and delusions. Smoothly navigating between a satire and a melodrama, the movie offers a poignant critique of masculinity, sexuality, and self-absorption that could be described as feminist and post-modernist, made all the more significant by the fact that the writer-director is a male.

Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) is at a crossroads in his career as a movie director. Trying to come up with a fresh idea that will give him the attention he first received at the start of his career, he works on a screenplay titled “About Miracles.”

Going through a (chronic) creative block, Joong-rae invites his friend production designer Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) to join him at a Shinduri beach resort, hoping for some input and a way out of his literary impasse. Chang-wook asks if he can bring along his platonic girlfriend, Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung), a composer who spent some time studying in Germany and now has a cassette of songs, and Joong-rae concurs. It turns out that Kim Moon-sook is a big fan of the filmmaker’s work.

Things come to a halt, when the director shares his screenplay’s storyline, no one responds enthusiastically to it. Later on, in a sushi bar, Joong-rae explodes, as a result of the lack of attention from the young worker in the place. Upset by his friend’s rage, Chang-wook tries in vain to persuade him to apologize to the humiliated waiter.

Joong-rae wonders whether Moon-sook prefers him to the production designer. Soothig his frail ego, she says what he wants to hear and later the duo have sex outdoors. Joong-rae has a certain charm about him that women find appealing, but he also exhibits dark undercurrents of anger and frustration. When Moon-sook admits that she had had sex with several men in Germany, he explodes with a show of jealousy.

More importantly, like most insecure males, Joong-rae has trouble dealing with his emotions as evident on the morning after sex. When he says he is returning to Seoul, Moon-sook wonders if it’s her fault.

Joong-rae returns to the resort two days later by himself. Wandering around, he meets Choi Sun-hee (Song Sun-mi), an assistant manager of a coffee shop, who reminds him of Moon-sook. The couple begins to court. Things get complicated in both farcical and serious ways, when the first woman arrives and tries to figure out what’s going on.

At the center of “Woman on the Beach” is the dissection of two romantic-sexual triangles. The first involves Joong-rae, his married friend Chang-wook, and Chang-wook’s platonic girlfriend Moon-sook, when they venture out to gray, sandstorm-beset Shinduri beach for a getaway designed to let Joong-rae clear his head. The second triangle features Joong-rae, Moon-sook, and Sun-hee, a Moon-sook lookalike whom Joong-rae falls for after spurning the actual Moon-sook.

“Woman on the Beach” offers a fresh, original take on the endless battle of the sexes. The women respond in a similar mode to the director’s power plays and deceptions. Both selfish and self-absorbed, he in turn is only interested in looking after himself and finishing his screenplay.

“People only believe in things that are sound,” says Joong-rae in criticizing his new film project “About Miracles,” in which a man attempts to discover the invisible bonds shared between seemingly random coincidences. But this notion is contested in an ironic mode, since the behavior of the filmmaker is shaped by instinctive and reckless rather than rational and sound impulses.

The repetitious cycle of courtship, seduction, sex, and withdrawal is depicted in minutiae detail and with both witty irony and dry humor. Hong Sang-soo paints a piercing portrait of confused, selfish masculinity in which the thrill of the chase proves more exciting than the act of consummation. An intelligent, self-reflexive critique of self-absorbed men, who refuseor are unable to grow up–and Male’s deep fears of real intimacy, “Woman on the Beach” is a witty serio-comedy that might appeal to both male and female viewers.

The dialogue is poignant and spare, and some of the most powerful sequences are silent, letting the camera, mise-en-scene, and the gifted actors do the workand register the subtle meanings.
Set during off-season at a beach resort, visually, the movie is compelling, with its gray palette of color, which fits most suitably the melancholy, bitter-sweet tone of the saga.

I saw the movie at the 2006 New York Film Festival and, to the best of my knowledge, as of today, it has no American distribution. It’s’ noteworthy that “Woman on the Beach” is a far more accessible (and enjoyable) follow-up to the director’s former film, “Tale of Cinema,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.