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NYFF: Woman on the Beach

October 1st, 2006 (06:57 pm)

© 2006 D. Gordon

I've been getting into Korean movies the past few months; there's quite a bit coming out of the country these days (that's South Korea, although North Korea does have it's own wacky film industry). As part of that, I decided to get tickets for the two Korean movies on this year's schedule: The Host and Woman on the Beach. I've heard more about The Host, but what I have heard about Woman on the Beach has been positive.

I've never seen any of director Hong Sang-soo's other work (including Woman Is the Future of Man, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well) before, although it seems to be controversial; it seems they're a bit misogynistic, but not enough to be clearly offensive. I wasn't sure quite what to expect with this, but the movie turned out to be a funny look at relationships, tinged with a little melancholy, and a glimpse into gender roles and definitions in South Korea.

Kim Joong-rae is a film director. He's working on a script, but it's not going well, and his advance from the producer is dwindling. He talks Chang-wook, a personable enough young man who seems to have a bigger heart and deeper pockets than he does, into driving him to the seashore to write there. Chang-wook agrees with one stipulation: this trip is interrupting plans with his girlfriend Moon-sook, so she has to come as well.

The three head off to Shinduri Beach, a resort area on the western shore. Once there, however, things look a little different. Chang-wook is actually married, and not to Moon-sook. Moon-sook is a pretty independent-minded woman, who in no way considers Chang-wook her boyfriend (they don't seem to have done much beyond a quick kiss). Director Kim is soon busy putting the moves on Moon-sook. The movie follows the group, especially Kim and Moon-sook, as they're drawn closer and closer into each others' gravitational fields. They come close enough to collide, then repel each other and return to Seoul. Kim soon returns to Shinduri Beach and realizes he misses the woman, leaves her a message (her cell phone is always off), looks for her in the few women at the resort. Moon-sook comes back, and Kim and Moon-sook are drawn together again, only to repel each other once more. It's just who they are. Kim, even in his atypical lifestyle, is still somewhat of a typical Korean male (he can't stand the thought that the women he cares about have slept with other men, whether or not he had any claim to be upset); but Moon-sook isn't a typical Korean female (she spent significant time in Germany, and dated foreign men), and won't automatically capitulate to whatever the director wants.[1]

This isn't a heavy, ponderous tour through relationships, though - interspersed are some really funny moments. The threesome run into a couple walking a dog on the beach; Moon-sook immediately kneels to pat the dog, while Kim unexpectedly runs offscreen in terror. Kim uses this long, convoluted, geometry-based explanation full of "guy-logic" to explain why Moon-sook should ignore his infidelities, instead of just owning up to them. The audience is dumbfounded at how he could even pretend this is serious, and Moon-sook's face reflects the same dumbfoundedness.

The cinematography is different from most of the other Korean films I've seen. Instead of rich, vivid colors (look at Forbidden Quest for some astounding reds and whites), everything is muted, the same gray-tan of the wet sand and cloudy sky of the off-season beach resort. The characters run into only a handful of other people, the tide always seems to be out, and floors of hotel rooms stand empty and unlocked. This really is in keeping with the difficulties and almost hopelessness of the situation between Moon-sook and Kim.

There were a few points past the halfway mark during which I got a little restless, something I've noticed in a couple of other Korean films. This might be a sign of a slower pace in Korean filmmaking - the setup is complete but there's a slower movement towards the climax. It may also be me needing to get up out of the uncomfortable loge seats. I dunno.

The Q&A with the director was interesting as well. Hong is a soft-spoken man (and maybe the microphone wasn't placed too well), so it was a little hard to hear him. But it was clear that he wasn't giving much away in his answers. I have no trouble with making the audience come to their own conclusions about actions and symbols, and define the story in their own way. That's refreshing, but also a little frustrating, in that he's definitely shown some artistic growth - and maybe some growth in understanding relationships - as compared to his earlier movies, but he refused to talk about it. Maybe Hong has had his own "Director Kim" moments as well.

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[1] I'm using the term "typical" very loosely and as implied by the movie.