Review: Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman on the Beach”

Successful film director Joong-rae is struggling to come up with a scenario for his latest film. Feeling blocked and needing a quiet place to write, he travels from Seoul to Shinduri Beach, a resort on Korea’s west coast. He asks his art director Chang-wook to keep him company. Chang-wook brings along his girlfriend Moon-sook, a music composer who is a fan of Joong-rae’s films. The three spend most of the day wandering around the nearly deserted beach talking, eating, and drinking. As the day unfolds and everyone becomes increasingly inebriated, they reveal significant facets of their personalities and personal histories. As Moon-sook observes, Joong-rae turns out to be very different from his philosophical art films. He is a cynical, abrasive man with a barely concealed rage that erupts with little warning. Nevertheless, Moon-sook and Joong-rae experience a mutual attraction that they act upon when they sneak away from Chang-wook to spend the night together. The next day, however, Joong-rae coldly rebuffs Moon-sook and returns to Seoul. Two days later, a regretful Joong-rae returns to Shinduri hoping to reconnect with Moon-sook. He then meets Sun-hee, a café manager. On the pretext of interviewing Sun-hee for his film, he begins a fling with this new woman whom he is convinced resembles Moon-sook. Complications ensue when Moon-sook herself returns to the beach that night.
Woman on the Beach (2006), Hong Sang-soo’s seventh feature, is one of his funniest and most accessible films. Just as in his other films, male selfishness, egotism and cruelty are put mercilessly on display. However, in this new film Hong gives his material a much lighter touch than usual, with a playful approach to cinematic form. Hong is unique among Korean filmmakers for eschewing flashy visuals and outré subject matter in order to foreground his witty dialogue and the naturalistic performances of his actors. Hong’s deceptively simple style makes use of recurring narrative patterns, which richly rewards multiple viewings. His perceptive and brutally honest depictions of male and female relationships have drawn comparisons to Eric Rohmer. Woman on the Beach features excellent performances, most notably Ko Hyun-joung, a popular TV drama actress making her film debut. Her portrayal of Moon-sook, a woman who remains optimistic despite being emotionally bruised by the men in her life, is a revelation.
Hong Sang-soo was born in 1960 in Seoul. After studying film at Chungang University in Korea, he continued his education in the U.S., earning an MFA degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. Hong also studied for a time at the Cinemathèque Française in Paris. Upon his return to Korea he worked at the SBS television network. In 1996 Hong released his debut film The Day a Pig Fell in the Well, which received much critical acclaim and immediately established him as a major talent. Hong’s films have won numerous awards at film festivals around the world, and have been critically lauded at the Cannes, Berlin, and New York film festivals. Some of his other films are The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), Turning Gate (2002), Woman is the Future of Man (2004), and Tale of Cinema (2005).