Joong-rae, an established (though not very well-off) director, corrals his weak-willed friend Chang-wook into taking him to the seaside for a few days so that he can work on his overdue script. Chang-wook agrees on the condition that he be allowed to bring his girlfriend along. The three set off in the morning in the friend’s car, listening to music written and performed by the girl, Moon-sook, who’s a composer and clearly a big fan of Joong-rae’s work. They have stilted getting-to-know-you conversations. They find a place to stay. And then, as they dawdle outside, Joong-rae tells Chang-wook that he likes him because he’s so trusting: “It’s hard for a married man to bring his girlfriend out with him so openly.” “I’m not his girlfriend,” retorts Moon-sook. “You have to have sex for that.”
“This is fun,” says Joong-rae.
And so begins “Woman on the Beach,” another of Hong Sang-soo’s adept, acid-laced explorations of relationships, the gender divide and Korean masculinity. The audience is only given a vague sense of what Joong-rae’s films are like, arty and sensitive enough that most of the women in the film are googly eyed upon meeting him. Moon-sook herself is harboring a crush, though after the three have spent an evening together drinking she observes that he’s not like his films: “Sorry, but you’re actually just another Korean man.” This doesn’t stop her from opening up to him as the night goes on, as they run and leave Chang-wook behind, walking the beach at night and ultimately trysting in an unlocked, empty hotel room. The next morning he’s distant, and she’s ready to let him off the hook, if also a little hurt. She and Chang-wook return to Seoul, and Joong-rae stays, calls her to apologize, and in passing picks up another woman staying at a nearby hotel.
Hong’s characterizations are hard to take they would be cruel if they weren’t so fully realized, and if he weren’t such a connoisseur of the acts of social sadism that can pepper our interactions with others. Joong-rae is a grand disaster of a man, the full extent of which the audience realizes alongside Moon-sook. He’s insecure and needy, defensive and manipulative, prone to strident rages and, in the most cutting detail of all, to using the ensuing emotional chaos as fodder for his film. Process is never pretty. Moon-sook is charming and charmingly direct, though at one point she reveals that she’s older than she appears; she acts and looks like a winsome girl. In fact, all of the characters seem in different degrees to be blustering children, until they suddenly reveal inscrutable back-stories littered with the wreckage of past relationships, romantic and otherwise.
“Woman on the Beach” is, if it’s not clear from the above, a comedy, and it is very funny, though threaded through with a sense of despair at the apparent futility of human connection. Shot almost entirely on the beach and in the buildings facing it, the film has a chilly air to it that’s partially the director’s world view, and partially just inherent to the setting: There are few things sadder than an empty, windswept resort town once the season has ended.