As perhaps the most narratively straightforward Hong Sang-soo film to date, albeit one still prone to a certain structural mischievousness, Woman on the Beach modulates its conceptual restraint in such a languid way as to allow its characters room to breathe. Interestingly, despite this active divergence of approach, Woman on the Beach opens with its Hong stand-in, arthouse director Kim Jung-rae (Kim Seung-woo), in a state of stasis. Jung-rae entreats his friend, Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo), to join him for a weekend away, while he seeks the inspiration to hammer-out a new script, an offer that Chang-wook agrees to on the condition that he can bring his aspiring musician and singer girlfriend, Kim Mun-suk (Go Hyun-jung) — who’s a fan of Jung-rae’s films. That this trio almost immediately find themselves navigating the awkward lanes of a love triangle should not come as a surprise — nor should it be hard to intuit, for the Hong-initiated, that this development leads to gleeful bouts of humor. (A highlight: Mun-suk’s perpetual spurning of compliments; in an early scene, she laments her tall height and expresses a desire to cut off a bit of her legs, a joke hilariously resurrected later when she suggests, in a bit of dark jocularity, that she should cut off part of her face, too.) Familiar themes of masculine fragility and Korean identity are likewise attended to, and the first half of the film is populated by winsome interactions increasingly built around the jarring mélange of passivity and hostility typical of breached relationships.
Couched in the belief that the de facto course of the human condition is to live out the same few episodes again and again, across a lifetime, our freedom found only in the struggle between change and acceptance.
If the first half of Woman on the Beach can also feel a bit rudderless, this is very much by design. Repetition is, and seemingly always will be, essential to Hong’s understanding of the world; his work is often couched in the belief that the de facto course of the human condition is to live out the same few episodes again and again, across a lifetime, our freedom found only in the struggle between change and acceptance. So, when, in a strategy predictive of Hong’s 2016 film Right Now, Wrong Then, the plot cycles, characters then begin to seem more resolved in their understanding of things, which deepens them in unexpectedly affecting ways. Focus shifts from a male perspective to a female one, narrative interests from romance to ideas of self-worth. This change occurs almost imperceptibly, in small moments: Early in the second half, director Jung-rae interviews a woman, Sun-hee (Song Seon-mi), ostensibly for script research, but actually because she looks like Mun-suk. The genesis of this interaction is a manipulative male power play, and while one of Jung-rae’s questions (“Who do you hate the most?”) — offered really just so he may stay in the company of his new pursuit — results in a moment of surprising catharsis for Sun-hee (“I hate my mother!”), the scene still registers as a powerful self-critique (directed through Hong analog Jung-rae). Whereas Woman on the Beach initially implicates competitive romance as a strain on male-male friendship, Hong gradually favors an emphasis on women’s attainment of autonomy and camaraderie within oppressive patriarchal strictures. It isn’t hard, then, to take Hong’s 2017 film, On the Beach at Night Alone, as a more oblique ideological successor to Woman on the Beach — right down to the two films’ coy titles. Neither is really about solitude, but rather a unified sense of defiance.