To my mind, Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach is his most complicated film, yet it seems his most accessible. It could very well be that the director has now completely integrated his passion for structural organization so that the rhymes of the plot and the shuffling of his characters seem less controlled by an omnipresent narrator. With his latest film, the structure seems more natural, playful, and issuing from the agency of his characters. The new feeling of Hong’s movie could also be attributed to the subtle autobiographical and self-reflexive nature of the plot, which is centered around an uninspired film director who casually tries to define the relationships around him by action, and in doing so makes an attempt to inspire himself creatively. This theme connects very strongly with that of Hong’s last film, Tale of Cinema (2005), whose main character longed to “direct” his life in a manner that reflected the outcome of a film he viewed. Hong’s evolution is startling and welcome, both deepening and expanding the already rich work of one of contemporary cinema’s finest directors.
Woman on the Beach starts with a film director, Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo), who, in order to be inspired for his new script, goes on an excursion to a small beach resort with a married friend, Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo), who brings along his girlfriend Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung). Finding out that the couple is not actually sleeping together, Joong-rae makes his move, and successfully seduces and is seduced by Moon-sook. Chang-wook goes away in a semi-ignorant state of mind, the trio returns to Seoul, and two days later Joong-rae again travels to the beach. He had failed to write anything during the day and night he spent pulling Moon-sook away from her companion, and he returns to the beach not only for inspiration for his film, but also in an expression of longing for the feeling that ignited between the him and Moon-sook, one that immediately dissipated after leaving the resort. Rhyming with the first half of the film, on this second trip Joong-rae finds two women, one of whom (Song Sun-mi) he seduces by saying he wants to interview her because she reminds him of a character—in reality, of Moon-sook—that he is writing for his film. Moon-sook, answering a nostalgic phone message the director left her before he met up with the new girls, returns to the beach as well, and as in the first half where Moon-sook found herself between two men attracted to her, Joong-rae now finds himself between two women who pursue him.
Because of the repetitions and variations inherent in Hong’s narratives, plot descriptions always seem either too long or too short to be clear, either streamlining the film, missing the choice details and many unrhymed asides and idiosyncrasies, or breaking the film down into a tedious step-by-step affair that emphasizes the structure of the piece. In these respects, Woman on the Beach may be the hardest of Hong’s films to properly describe. It not only features more central characters, and more active ones, than his last few films, it also to a large degree sympathizes with and focuses on its central female character, Moon-sook. This is despite the fact that Joong-rae is the movie’s protagonist, and that the progress of the movie is intrinsically tied to his stymied creative urge, itself an analogy for his self-dissatisfaction and solitude. In fact, the most appealing thing in Woman on the Beach is how the two women in the film initially seem to spring mostly from Joong-rae as fluctuating manifestations of the director’s creative and romantic frustrations (he tries to define both as characters), but gradually and more accurately emerge as proactive and independent women that influence Joong-rae’s life, his script, and Woman on the Beach so much that it seems completely natural for the film to end on Moon-sook and not the director. It is this shifting sense of narrative allegiance, combined with the rationale of several characters, their agency in the plot, and the film’s self-reflexive attitude towards both artistic creation and romantic projection that makes Woman on the Beach so subtly complex.
It is also this expansive focus, giving due time, psychology, and, perhaps most importantly, agency, to its male and female characters that makes Hong’s film his most accessible. Moon-sook, more than any Hong female before her, is allowed to confront Hong’s usual solipsistic, damaged, and self-hating man with her own flaws and obsessions instead of being relegated to a well-written and carefully integrated signifier to bounce off the man as he passively allows life (and the film) to progress. Moon-sook’s attraction and conflict with Joong-rae has a depth of relationship that in Hong’s work previously existed mostly as a depth of character placed in a highly structured narrative. The two seem continually to be discussing how they view life and romance, but in typical Hong fashion are always talking at cross-purposes and never seem to hear each other. The structure here is no less intricate or cleverly mapped than the director’s previous work (there is even a diagram sketched by Joong-rae explaining his philosophy on the connections one makes in the details of life!), but Woman on the Beach seems to have a significantly deeper sense of the ethical and moral decisions, as well as the agency that can bring a couple together, and how those very same qualities that spark between them often can be what keeps them apart. This is why the film loves to pivot its characters around from one two-on-one group to another, in a Rohmer-esque fashion, using the reasons for one character’s attraction to one person to help create his attraction to another, and the ultimate difference between the two existing in the reasons why each was chosen. It is Hong’s wittiest work and also his most generous, but its real pleasure is its integration of his already superbly structured plots and picture of male inadequacy into a deeper sense of human relationships.