Though his films are de rigueur selections at festivals here and elsewhere, and despite an avid following in the critical community, only one of Hong Sang-soo’s seven films has previously been released theatrically here; it, too, staggered into a token theatrical engagement a couple years after a successful run on the festival circuit.
For those of you without fest-circuit experience, or an all-region DV player: Hong’s films are naturalistic in style — single-take master shots, with semi-improvised dialogue, of scenes emphasizing character development over plot advancement — and impassive in structure, as narratives double back on themselves to repeat from a different perspective or to tell a parallel story. His films document the often devastating consequences of emotional — in particular sexual — naiveté. Hong’s two signature scenes are profoundly uncomfortable depictions of what one critic has dubbed “unsexy sex,” and of binge drinking — usually, two or three characters sitting at a table littered with half-full ashtrays, half-empty glasses, discarded bottles and leftover scraps of food. It’s been reported that Hong has his actors play these scenes intoxicated; if he doesn’t, they do an unsettling imitation of the barely maintained posture, puffy features, and internally desperate, externally incoherent monologues that are the ravages of overindulgence. Perhaps the closest-cutting element of Hong’s films is the suggestion, in these scenes, that at crucial moments in our lives we’re at something far less than our best — that we’re staggering, bloated and mostly oblivious, through the encounters that define our relationships with our friends and lovers.
All of which is to say that Woman on the Beach… isn’t really like that at all. Or, more precisely, it is like that — characters are still ruled by impulses of which they mostly lack awareness, to the detriment of their relationships — but it doesn’t feel like that. Hong seems to be experimenting with the inherently comedic aspects of his familiar concerns: the awkwardness of his characters has a comic dimension this time. The story of an overlapping love triangle — first between a movie director, his assistant and his assistant’s platonic girlfriend, and then between the girl, the director and the new girl he takes up with after seemingly botching his connection with the first — takes a wryer approach than usual for Hong, with a god’s eye view of the deceptions the characters spin to one another. The bits of status-wrangling one-upsmanship that’ve always been present in Hong’s dialogue are delivered not through a veil of social grace but to an almost absurd affect. There’s even a legitimate farcical set piece, with two lovers climbing over a hotel balcony to an adjacent room, to escape the rival outside their door (shades, perhaps, of the much more unsettling use of a hotel balcony in Hong’s The Power of Kangwon Province). Sexual misadventure and the ultimate failure of romantic synchronicity is presented, via Hong’s breezy music and unserious zooms, as a matter of petty foibles rather than any larger malaise. Perhaps it’s just a different tonal approach to the same material; maybe, like the diagram the filmmaker protagonist draws to explain his tendency to rationalize his sexual jealousy, it’s simply a matter of seeing a different shape within the same whole.
Opens January 9 at Film Forum