Coming off of one of his more audacious experiments in repetition, Tale of Cinema, in which the first half of the movie turns out to be a movie the main characters of the second half are watching, Woman on the Beach feels like a step toward conventionality. The two-part form is still there, but the film is largely absent any kind of structural anomalies or folds, instead the ideas of duality and repetition are asserted by the characters. I guess this can be seen as a kind of step forward, in that instead of imposing an unnatural (unrealistic) structure on his characters, their desires for repetition are instead developed through their actions. Rather than resorting to reality-breaking magic to free his female characters from the whims of male hypocrisy and aggression, Hong simply actualizes it in the narrative, shifting focus three-fourths of the way through from hero to heroine.
A director, Kim Jungrae (Kim Seungwoo, in his only Hong Sangsoo film), trying to finish off his screenplay, ropes an old friend into going on vacation with him. The friend, Changwook (played by Kim Taewoo, who was the director in Woman is the Future of Man and will be the director again in Like You Know It All), brings along his sort-of girlfriend Moonsook, played by Go Hyunjung (she’ll appear as Kim Taewoo’s object of affection again in Like You Know It All). Jungrae and Moonsook instantly hit it off, enraging Changwook. The two men perform a half-hearted battle of bravado for her, which she naturally sees right through. She prefers the director though and hooks up with him that night, after the two ditch Changwook.
The next day they all go back to town, the director not wanting to commit to the girl. But a couple days later, he is back at the beach, missing Moonsook. He finds a replacement for her in another local girl, and attempts to recreate the day they’d spent together with this new woman, Sunhee (Song Seonmi, she’ll return in The Day He Arrives and On the Beach at Night Alone). Despite the repetition (and the sex), the director can’t recapture the same feeling he had with Moonsook (love?) and when she returns (for he had called her and asked her to come back), he quickly has to deny everything and try to keep the two women apart.
From this basic, sitcom scenario, Hong wrings a surprising amount of depth, but we’re always unsure of exactly how seriously we’re supposed to take it. All the characters are more or less morally despicable, in the manner of characters in a farce, yet they’re also all treated with respect. Even poor Chungwook elicits some sympathy as he has his girlfriend stolen by his much cooler buddy. So does Sunhee, who might have been the ditzy woman the hero has to ditch to get with his true love, but turns out to be a generally decent person. The scene she shares with Moonsook, two women drinking together without a man in sight, is one of the more unusual in Hong’s career: even in his later, female-centered films his heroines rarely just hang out with other women (note: this was originally written before The Woman Who Ran and In Front of Your Face, which are almost entirely made up of women talking to other women).
At one point, the director draws a diagram for Moonsook, attempting to rationalize and excuse his behavior toward her (he’s upset after she tells him that years ago while studying abroad she had slept with some white men). An amorphous blob represents a person, in this case, Moonsook. Three points on the blob form a triangle, representing her, the foreign men, and the director’s imagining them having sex. The triangle formed by the points becomes the dominant image of her in his mind, something he tries to counteract by learning more about her and filling in more points, so that he has more triangles and images. The scene could play any number of ways: as something Hong actually believes about relationships, as a parody of the rationalizing patriarchal man, as a metaphor for Hongian filmmaking itself, with his characters more or less vainly attempting to break out of the repetition of images and events. It’s a bit unclear, especially as Moonsook seems to think it’s a brilliant idea.
In an earlier scene, the director explains the plot of his new film, about a person who hears the same song three times in three different places on the same day. They become obsessed with tracing the web of causality that brought about this coincidence, convinced that if they can understand it, then they will have learned something fundamental about the universe. This is, naturally enough, how I’ve approached my favorite Hong films, coming up with elaborate and sometimes patently absurd theories to sort out the timelines and relationships of Claire’s Camera, Turning Gate, or Oki’s Movie (I can’t wait to rewatch The Day He Arrives). Despite this bit of meta-humor cutting me to the bone (for the director’s idea is surely meant to be absurd and bound to make for a terrible film, right?), Woman on the Beach affords very little room for that kind of obsessive theorizing, which is probably why it remains one of my least favorite Hongs. But the more I think about it, about how it internalizes all the structural games that, in the next decade, will come to so typify his work, I wonder if it doesn’t represent a high point in his career, the kind of melding of satire and sincerity, emotion and farce we’ll see in On the Beach at Night Alone.
Moonsook’s observation, sly and cutting, ”You’re nothing at all like your films” is one of the great Hong lines. And the film’s ending is one of his best. With Moonsook having taken full control of the narrative, she gets her car stuck in the sand, only to be helped out by a couple of random guys. But they don’t carry her away, as Kim Minhee will dream in On the Beach. Moonsook, in charge, drives off on her own.