It’s clear that South Korean director Hong Sang-soo knows a thing or two about human relationships, of longings, self-delusions, attitudinal dead ends, and, once in a very miraculous while, he has a revelation or insight suggesting a new way to conduct them. On the basis of six heralded films, including 2004’s “Woman Is the Future of Man” (his only one before “Woman on the Beach” to have gained distribution in the U.S.) Hong has been labeled an Asian Rohmer. At first glance he seems to have learned lessons directly from the French master in how to tell conversation-heavy, behavior-observant stories by means of an “economic” visual grammar, which in Hong’s case includes long, patient single takes punctuated here and there by zooms or intrusive (and sometimes incongruously light) soundtrack music.
But Hong’s worldview is remarkably distinct. Constructively cynical and optimistically disillusioned, he maintains an unclouded perspective on the expedient reasons underlying human interactions, particularly those of his stunted male characters, who, blessed with artistic intelligence but lacking in emotional maturity, are some of the most real to be seen on current art-house screens. Hong points out the sometimes laughable, sometimes pathetic motivations of his male protagonists (and, possibly, alter-egos) while unpreachingly suggesting their improvement, and this by achieving a rare balance in tone — treating his characters with a sympathy that never sinks into sentimentality and with a strictness that avoids easy judgment.
Hong’s latest, “Woman on the Beach,” even possesses a levity that makes it easy to see why it’s being sold as a romantic comedy, though its humor isn’t exactly of the wocka-wocka variety. The laughter it generates is actually rather solemn, since for every convention of the rom-com Hong tries out he adds his own brand of melancholy — the film’s structure is, after all, influenced by that epochal psychosexual tragedy, “Vertigo.” In the first half, film director Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) takes a trip out to one of Korea’s west coast beaches to write a new screenplay with friend and production designer Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) and Chang-wook’s girlfriend, Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung), in tow. Once there Joong-rae and Moon-sook start conspicuously flirting, tip-toeing around Chang-wook and eventually spending an evening together in bed. But Joong-rae chickens out from any sort of commitment and soon returns to Seoul.
That’s when the film performs its Hitchcockian act (possible spoilers): Joong-rae comes back to the beach and, running across Sun-hee (Song Sun-mi), a woman who resembles Moon-sook (though not really–they’re just both tall), he once again employs his work as a director for purposes of seduction, interviewing Sun-hee as part of his “research” for his next film in order to establish contact. Moon-sook comes back into Joong-rae’s life and eventually discovers the two have been together, but instead of bedroom farce, with three warring variables creating endless permutations of hilarity, Hong takes his time by setting up a series of one-on-one encounters, each more exhaustingly personal and revealing than the next.
What’s revealed is that Joong-rae is, like so many of us, a confused, contradictory being, unapologetically scheming for pursuit of pleasure but unable to overcome revulsion at the thought of Moon-sook’s past affair with a “foreigner”: he draws diagrams demonstrating his theory of overcoming the “images imprinted on us by others” and yet he repeats the same mistakes caused, in part, by a dominating obsession with his own imprinted images. This portrait of Joong-rae and male deception (toward himself as well as those around him) is poignantly on target. If Hong overthinks his complex but straightforward material by occasionally adorning it with incongruous flourishes (e.g., the final scene of a car stuck on the beach that’s supposed to symbolize Moon-sook’s liberty from Joong-rae’s deceit), he can be excused (truth is truth even if awkwardly presented). “Woman on the Beach” is mostly graceful in conception and completely true in character.