October 2, 2006

New York Dispatch. 5.

Andrew Grant finds Hong Sang-soo's latest cynical yet not pessimistic, confessional, though maybe not as honestly as it seems.

NYFF 44 With his seventh feature film, Woman on the Beach, South Korean director Hong Sang-soo has created a complex yet lighthearted film that will no doubt please long-time fans as well as potentially win over former detractors. Like all of Hong's films, it's one that I feel requires multiple viewings before fully grasping the myriad of ideas at play, though on the surface it's his most straightforward (and funniest) film to date.

Many of Hong's trademarks are present - multiple triangular relationships, male inadequacy, and a narrative doubling that is less a mirror-image reversal (as in Turning Gate) than it is a variation on a theme. Like The Power of Kangwon Province, the bulk of the action takes place in a popular vacation spot, this time an out-of-season beach resort on Korea's west coast.

Woman on the Beach

There's always been a hint of the autobiographical in Hong's work, and it's grown with each successive film. His protagonists are often affiliated with the arts - writers, actors, art professors - and both Tale of Cinema and Woman on the Beach have film directors at their core. Tale of Cinema ends with the inevitable death of one director, while Woman on the Beach opens with news of the death of another. Is Hong killing off his alter egos, making a statement about the future of cinema, or is it merely coincidence? That both directors in Woman on the Beach share the same name is somewhat ironic, for living director Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) is currently working on a screenplay (entitled About Miracles) that deals with this very type of random coincidence.

Joong-rae is convinced that a trip to Shinduri Beach will provide him with the needed inspiration to complete the screenplay. He makes the journey with his production designer Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) who, though married, insists on bringing his not-quite-mistress Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung) - a quintessential dynamic for a Hong Sang-soo film. The trio will soon find themselves caught up in arguments, petty jealousies, and games of seduction, thanks, in part, to the liberal consumption of Soju. The film's second half will find Joong-rae at the apex of a different triangle, complete with thematic and situational repetition, though for the first time in a Hong film there will be a convergence of the two distinct halves.

Woman on the Beach

Noticeably different this time around is that Hong has created characters who are active rather than passive, and who speak directly to things, as opposed to around them. The men in his films are often at career lows, yet they refuse to admit failure and turn to women as either a crutch or a surrogate for accomplishment. Though Joong-rae is in the midst of a directorial slump, he does manage to complete his screenplay, even while embroiled in an awkward romantic triangle. There is also a directness between characters that is rare for his films - a woman declares (repeatedly), "I will not have sex with you"; a man asks a woman outright about which of the two men she likes better. Then there are the lines that sound self-critical, such as when Moon-sook tells Joong-rae that he's not at all like his films, and that he's "actually just another Korean man." The territory is familiar, but the approach feels quite different. That's not to say that Joong-rae isn't a typical Hong character. In the film's second half, believing he's lost Moon-sook, he goes through the charade of interviewing a woman he meets because, as he tells her, she reminds him of a character in his screenplay. He concocts this situation out of a need to be recognized (and admired) by another woman - the fragile ego that is a staple of many of Hong's male characters.

Those who have criticized Hong in the past for paying short shrift to his female characters will no doubt find that Moon-sook is easily the most developed and independent of his female leads to date. Though initially her role seems as agent to Joong-rae's lack (either artistic or romantic), she takes a more active role in the events that transpire, such that Hong employs a change in narrative focus by the film's end.

Though perhaps more cynical than his past films (almost every marriage in the film has ended, or is in the process of ending, in divorce) Woman on the Beach is at the same time quite optimistic. A film that says much about the act of creation and the lasting power of images, it can easily be viewed as Hong at his most self-reflexive, and his most confessional, though it's nearly impossible to say that with full confidence. As a character in the film points out, "I'm honest only as much as I want to be."



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Posted by dwhudson at October 2, 2006 4:09 AM

Comments

Andrew,

You already know I'm jealous you've gotten to see this already. But I only have to wait for a couple weeks for my opportunity. So I'm holding off reading your take here, but I love that first screenshot. The clean lines, the colors, . . . just beautiful.

Adam

Posted by: Adam Hartzell at October 2, 2006 8:43 AM

Having seen the film, I would add that it's also his funniest movie so far..

Posted by: clementine at October 2, 2006 10:43 AM

It was entertaining and satisfying, though I was a little disappointed to see him moving to the woody allen territory (that "geometry" scene!) as compared to his previous works which displayed far more formal intelligence.

Posted by: Alok at October 2, 2006 11:03 AM

I liked this one okay, but I also prefer the formal shenanigans of Hong's earlier films to this more traditional, straightforward narrative. I prefer "I don't think you understood the film," to "You're not at all like your films."

Have people actually criticized Hong for his characterizations of women? That seems totally bizarre to me. His women are mostly complex and interesting, sometimes the focal point of the narrative and sometimes not, and always smarter and more sympathetic than the men. That's my take, anyway.

Posted by: Josh Ralske at October 2, 2006 12:09 PM

I found this really entertaining on first viewing, but on second viewing some cracks appeared. It's definitely good, but not in the same league as Tale of Cinema or Turning Gate.

Alok, the "geometry" scene made me cringe. Not surprised that it was Lisa Schwartzbaum's favorite scene and that she thought it was deeply insightful.

Posted by: anon at October 5, 2006 9:33 AM