WOMAN ON THE BEACHNR
Woman on the Beach, apart from its setting and female presence, bears no resemblance to Jean Renoir’s 1947 potboiler of the same name, perhaps that director’s least distinguished film. Writer-director Hong Sang-soo, called the Asian Eric Rohmer by some, has crafted what may be his most accessible exploration of young adult relationships in this tale of a “complicated” film director, Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo), who, while trying to write a screenplay in a beach resort, becomes involved with two physically similar women, Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung) and Sun-hee (Song Sun-mi).
As with Rohmer, the viewer should be prepared for a leisurely pace, lots and lots of talk and not a whole lot happening plot-wise to be able to reap the undeniable rewards Hong offers. He is highly observant of the tensions which exist between Korean men—often seen as blusteringly macho, immature and emotionally volatile—and women—highly pragmatic and volatile as well. These hard-drinking souls are anything but the self-effacing, understated Asians perceived by so much of Western society. Joong-rae is definitely an obsessive type, quick to anger, afraid of dogs and given to rants against Korean women who date “foreigners,” especially the unattractive ones who are, to him, unfairly perceived by outsiders as desirable. At one point, he tries to explain his irrational mindset to Moon-sook via a scribbled diagram, which bears some humorously wacky resemblance to the real-life graphic philosophy espoused by no less than Imelda Marcos in Ramona Diaz’s 2003 documentary, Imelda.
As Moon-sook, Ko gives a lovely, multi-dimensional performance which does much to sustain your interest during the film’s undeniable longueurs. One wishes more had been made of her character’s career as a composer, to make her seem less of a mere object of male desire and to counterbalance the emphasis on Joong-rae’s tortured artistry. With his habit of interviewing people to suck material out of them for his ever-developing scripts, he seems to be something of an onscreen avatar of Hong himself, but the title of his nascent project, About Miracles, and its premise of a recurring Mozart theme are less than compelling. Moon-sook starts off as a very self-possessed, even self-deprecating character, but her messy, unsatisfying entanglement with Joong-rae renders her a drunken, wailing disaster. Ko makes her self-pity both moving and funny. Indeed, her acting is full of sly wit, as when she phlegmatically deals with her rival, Sun-hee, or surreptitiously and viciously pinches Joong-rae when he confesses doubt over their romantic future.
Although the film starts with Joong-rae as the seeming protagonist, Ko’s performance far outshines Kim’s, enabling this actress—a top Korean star from her appearances on internationally wildly popular soap operas, making her screen debut here—to literally drive away with the movie.