Hong Sang-soo’s film posters, titles, and scores betray a kindness, romantic oafishness, and a sentimental sweetness that he proceeds to shatter over the course of his film. They belong in romantic comedies which end in Hugh Grant kissing a beautiful woman on a bridge, because love is real and the movies is where we can find it. His movies are not themselves parodies, pastiches, or rejections of those films. They are, in a way, transplants, taking classical awkward romantic situations and grafting them on to characters much more grounded in reality, where fate and destiny are less of a concern than insecurities and ineffable character flaws.
His seventh film, 2006’s Woman on the Beach, is at once a consummation of this attitude, and a masterfully tragicomic investigation of his own process. The film concerns a film director, Kim Jung-rae (Kim Seung-woo), and his whirlwind infatuation, love affair, and subsequent fallout with his friend’s girlfriend Kim Mun-suk (Go Hyun-jung) whilst the three stay at a holiday resort on the West Coast of South Korea to help Jung-rae work on his new script.
The two engage in lengthy dialogues about their greater concerns in life, romance, trust issues, what they truly believe in, but the film is never focused on the content of their discussion, or indeed, the nature and being of romantic entanglement itself; the film is instead more interested preoccupied with the responses and emotions garnered by the sharing of this information. When Jung-rae tearfully admits to a sleeping Mun-suk the nature of his divorce and his resulting insecurities about women, we are not drawn to the story is telling but how it has affected him. The content of the story is not discussed for the rest of the film but we are consistently reminded of the fact that it occurred and the emotional space it takes up in his mind.
Conversations handled with grace, dignity, and poetry in more classically romantic films are somewhat stepped on, particularly in the films transcendent third act. The arguments between the lovers never find a natural pace, neither of them are particularly articulate, what is important is that we see them struggling to cope with and understand the emotions they are experiencing, and, importantly, we see them fail to reconcile how they feel about each other with their respective hangups. The intimacy between the two can be, at times, challengingly real and messy. We are drawn to remember these times in our own lives where we expected we’d have the right thing to say, but find ourselves too preoccupied with the emotions consuming us to be profound, or even helpful.
The one resolved plot is of course the directors screenplay, which he ultimately finishes in what seems to be a two hour frenzy of creative impulse. During this time Jung-rae has been consumed by his emotions, admitting to Mun-suk that he has been crying in despair wondering where she had gone. It is apparent that his creative impulse is a result of the turbulent romantic engagements of his last week, and that this aspect of his personality has fuelled his creative output. Whether this is autobiographical for Sang-soo or not is debatable, and not something I feel at all qualified to comment on, but it provides an interesting angle for the viewer to see the creative process. He has continually been driving Mun-suk away, and with his brief fling with local woman Choi Sun-hee (Song Seon-mi), seems bent on bringing about his own destruction. We ask, at the end of the film, was it worth it? Were these deliberate choices set in motion by Director Kim to bring about a creative rush which we infer has fuelled his career to date?
Far from the digestible romantic comedies often pushed through cinemas in the 2000s, Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach tells a story with no answers, solutions, or promises. If you look closely enough, it is apparent he has taken a romance movie and brought it into a world that seems frighteningly close to our own.