The Reeler


January 9, 2008

Woman on the Beach

Korean director gets accessible with his latest portrait of sex, power and chain-smoking

Jockeying for sexual power doesn't get much crueler or more entertaining than its rendering in Hong Sang-soo's films. His addled protagonists -- chain-smoking, hard-drinking, sexually profligate, morally indifferent -- would be appalling if they weren't so funny. Like a warped Ozu perpetually re-adapting Rules of Attraction, Hong works through the same characters and structural devices over and over again, paring down and modifying the formula. Of late, these modifications have included concerns of accessibility: "Maybe it's my age," he noted in an interview with Kevin B. Lee, "but a small voice was asking me when I was shooting, 'Will [the audience] understand this?' I didn't have that kind of voice before."

Woman on the Beach is only Hong’s second film (of seven) to have an American release, which -- annoying as it is to admit -- kind of makes sense. Surely it's an easier place to start than, say, 1998's The Power of Kangwon Province, which I saw, enjoyed, and had to have completely synopsized back to me to understand anything. If you don't know a flashback is a flashback until after you see the movie, things can get rough. No longer: not even the characters are inscrutable here.

As the story begins, director Kim Joon-rae (Kim Seung-woo) needs production designer Won Chang-wook's (Kim Tae-woo) presence on a weekend excursion to Shinduri beach; completion of his latest screenplay is down to the wire, and Joong-rae is out of ideas. Chang-wook reluctantly agrees, provided he can bring his girlfriend Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung). She's industry too -- a composer of scores and sentimental K-pop -- and, she insists, not really Chang-wook's girlfriend. "Do you have to have sex to be my girlfriend?" he yells in front of Joong-rae. Yes, she says, setting off epic laughter on Joon-rae's part. "Dammit, this isn't funny," Chang-wook sulks. "Yes it is," Joong-rae replies. "It's very funny."

Sure is. In the film's first half, Hong demonstrates again his mastery of long, master-shot awkwardness. Stuck in the same wide frame, the awkward trio uses the subtlest of cues (mistimed glances, a sudden inability to look one another in the eye, Mon-sook pinballing back and forth between the two men at will) to start some major shit. Chang-wook will simply disappear when the first half is over, oblivious to the fucking behind his back, and is never mentioned again, irrelevant to his former friends' sexual fortunes.

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In the second half things get awkward, less for the characters than the suddenly-bored viewer: Hong has adopted conventional characters along with a more or less conventional (read: linear) form. No one character in Woman on the Beach is beyond redemption, at least not permanently -- both Mon-sook and Joong-rae display large twinges of conscience over how they treat each other (if not others). Such moral concern is a rare event in Hong's films and practically unheard of for one of his male characters. It's a welcome turn on a human level, but Hong isn't as skilled with good behavior as bad: His characters stumble towards acting like upright human beings, and Hong stumbles trying to make it as interesting as expertly enacted bad behavior.

As always, Hong's great theme is gender roles, why they suck and how they can't be avoided. (In Woman Is The Future Of Man, Hong's other U.S.-distributed film, two old buddies get together and decide to visit a mutual ex-girlfriend to see if she's still easy. She is.) Moon-sook's most devastating insult to Joong-rae is "I'm sorry, but you're just a Korean man." To the woman who comes between them (Song Sun-mi), it's "So you're just a woman." Biological facts = social destiny = inescapable unhappiness -- which is why, Joong-rae explains in a priceless scene using geometric doodles to inadequately describe the entire spectrum of human perspective, we must fight to "break this evil and stereotypical image." Of course, a scene later he's berating Moon-sook for daring to ask whether or not he slept with someone else and stepped over her catatonic body to sneak the other woman out. Change comes slow.

If Hong's men and women act predictably, they're at least aware, for the first time, that they aren't behaving as they should. While not as shamelessly, frighteningly entertaining as in his earlier work (chortling at sexual assault is no longer an option as in Future of Man), Hong might be growing into humanism in his old age. If a little more formal convention is what it takes -- even though he still relies upon bifurcated structure and (sometimes rote) repetitions of the same events with minor variations to make his point -- so be it.

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