Thursday, September 21, 2006

TIFF Review: Woman on the Beach


I’ll confess up front that I’m not overly familiar with Hong Sang-Soo’s body of work. Last years A Tale of Cinema was a bit off putting due to the story structure being a tad esoteric. Paradoxically, it was intimate and fascinating and I was thinking about it for several days after seeing it; as good an indication as any that things were swirling just out of my reach on a single viewing. Woman on the Beach is much more accessible, and happily, is a satisfyingly complex work as well. With the veneer of an occasionally humorous relationship drama, it takes one particular aspect of human nature and examines it from as many sides as he can within the two hour timeframe.
Anyone who has watched two children in a roomful of toys argue and fight over one seemingly random toy - just because one or the other happens to have possession of it - will immediately understand where the film is coming from. And things are so much more complicated with adults, whose egos and defense mechanisms are much more developed.
The story follows a film director, Joong-Rae, who is working on the script to his latest film. Because he is experiencing a bit of a block in getting from concept to screenplay, he decides to head out for a change in scenery from the city to a beach resort which is more or less deserted in its off season. On a whim, he invites one of his crew, Chang-Wook, to join him on his trip and Chang-Wook brings his girlfriend Moon-Sook. Joong-Rae is immediately attracted to Moon-Sook, likely (to some degree) due to fact that his friend is quite average looking and she is most definitely not. Joong-Rae’s casual self confidence and high-profile as a director cause an immediate attraction from Moon-Sook, despite (or because of) his dismissal of her singing abilities (she is a music composer for films who is writing and singing on her debut pop music album.) Over dinner and lots of Soju, the new ‘couple’ find a way to dump Chang-Wook, making love in an abandoned hotel room. The next morning, Joong-Rae is more interested in working on his screenplay, and brushes Moon-Sook off. Not long after, he meets up with a two other women, one of whom looks like Moon-Sook, and Joong-Rae begins to pursue her. It’s not just the resemblance that attracts him, but also a subtle intimacy between the two women.
Woman on the Beach cleverly explores how we paint one image on a person based on our awareness that someone else favours them. Like the old expression that the most attractive men are the ones with wedding rings on their fingers. The film asks the question how much of human attraction is based on either what we cannot (or should not) have, as well as exploring the way a certain bit of recklessness (what the French call l’amour fou) enhances things until the next morning you often. All of this is done in carefully composed and well observed scenes taking place over walks through town or countryside, and many lunches and dinners involving alcohol.
After describing the outline of his movie, which revolves around a man getting to the bottom of a peculiar coincidence of the same thing happening three times in a single day, Joong-Rae comments that an audience will not believe the film because people tend to only believe in things they understand. Maybe he is right. However, people do clearly bounce around from one attraction to the next following on the least logical grounds. In many cases, logic is clearly the enemy.
Naturally, the number three factors heavily (literally and symbolically) in the film as each chapter involves a threesome which wants to shed a person to get to a couple. Hong Sang-Soo does these transitions from situation to situation in a very natural way so that the manipulation does not feel forced in the slightest, and each time examines his central exploration from a different angle. The opening scene involving a phone call and a coincidence and the closing shot involving two men getting a character unstuck out of the sand on the beach mesh perfectly into the story, and also sum up things an elegant way. Woman on the Beach is certainly worth the journey.

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