By Willie Krischke — July 5, 2009
“Woman on the Beach” is a movie about love triangles, and the people who inhabit them. It seems like an inherently awkward situation to find yourself in, full of tension and sexual competition, but Korean director Hong Sang-soo postulates – if I am interpreting this film correctly – that some folks not only enjoy the tension, they need it in order to be creatively productive.
As “Woman on the Beach” opens film director Seung-woo Kim is trying to hammer out a new script, but feeling creatively blocked. He asks – almost forces – his production assistant, Hyun-jung Go to take a trip with him to the beach, hoping the change of scenery will get his juices flowing. Go agrees, as long as he can bring his girlfriend along. Uh-oh, things just got interesting. The girlfriend is beautiful, free-spirited Choi Sun-Hee, and Kim wastes no time wooing her, right in front of his friend. The two men lock horns in buried and subverted ways, but she sees through all of their posturing. She can choose which man she wants to sleep with, and she chooses the director. Go fades from the picture.
OK, that was all kind of fun to watch, but here’s where it really gets interesting: Kim gets up the next morning and is cold and distant towards his conquest. She is confused and teary, and leaves the beach for the city. So he goes out and seduces another woman (Tae-woo Kim) who looks a great deal like her. (He asks the waiter at the restuarant: “she looks a lot like last night’s girl, don’t you think?”) Sun-Hee comes running back, figures out what’s going on, and sleeps outside their hotel door Kim and um, Kim are making love.
It’s hard to escape the notion that the movie director values the sexual tension more than the sex. It’s as if sex weren’t any fun unless there’s someone somewhere imagining it in anguish. And then there’s this: while the two women are sharing a dinner without him, trading stories and barbs, he finally gets his script written. Maybe a change of scenery isn’t what he needed to get those creative juices flowing – maybe making a few people around him, and himself, miserable in love was all it took.
This kind of thing could be really vicious and biting, a movie about messed up lovers and the lovers they mess up. But Hong Sang-soo handles it all gently, with a great deal of sympathy for his characters, and a twinkle in his eye. There are clear moments of romantic comedy, though Sang-soo trusts the viewer to find the comedy; he’s not going to point and shout at what’s funny. Or at what’s tragic. “Woman on the Beach” has a simple, elegant feel, and manages to be a pretty quiet, closely observed art film without ever feeling pretentious, drawn out, or boring.