Do they only exist in the movies? These charmless, narcissistic, whiny, terminally verbose man-children who, despite their being emotionally/psychologically regressive and generally not all that handsome, seem to bag and bed rather attractive women with effortless ease? Or if they do exist in the real world, do they exist mostly in the realm of the arts, and then mostly film, and make their films almost exclusively about being charmless, narcissistic, et cetera et cetera, indulging in a noxious self-reflexivity that reduces their films to so much unwatchable onanism? And what does it mean that this formula succeeded once, let alone has become a self-perpetuating subgenre apparently without end?
They are a plague, films of this ilk, and the infection seems to have broken into a worldwide pandemic, and thus we have South Korea’s Woman on the Beach, a tedious yak-fest that confuses navel gazing with soul searching and buries its fundamental infantilism beneath a veneer of auteuristic integrity. Divided into two acts, the film traces a long weekend spent on the South Korean shore by a film director, Jung-rae, who is trying to finish up his latest screenplay. For whatever reason, he invites along his production designer, Chang-wook, who in turn asks if he can bring along his “girlfriend”.
Moon-sook, uncommitted and coy, is a fledgling composer and singer, free spirited if a little moribund, and Jung-rae is of course immediately smitten. And she, as is inevitable in films of this sort, is also immediately smitten by his endless stream of logorrheic crass directness and boorish behavior (in the only real action of the film, Jung-rae blows up at a hapless waiter for no apparent reason, and storms off in a huff after delivering a verbal tirade to everyone in sight. Chang-wook demands that the director apologize, and the situation devolves into some heated discussion about masculinity, or something. Moon-sook is, sadly, impressed).
Chang-wook is obviously distressed at the way the weekend is going, and starts to get his dander up when it becomes more and more obvious that Jung-rae intends to bed Moon-sook—which he promptly does. And then they depart the next day, Jung-rae declaring his undying love of Moon-sook, but then dithering on about whether he will ever even call her again. Then abruptly, it’s two days later, Jung-rae is back on the beach, pining over Moon-sook, and Chang-wook, who seemed to be an integral character at first, if only as a foil, has vanished, never to be seen again.
Instead, Jung-rae wonders about the shoreline, mooning over Moon-sook (who refuses to call him back), until he falls for Sun-hee, a local waitress who Jung-rae is convinced resembles Moon-sook (they in fact look nothing alike at all, which I guess is supposed to be some running gag). Again, Jung-rae ramps up his boorish charm, and beds Sun-hee. And everything is going swimmingly, until Moon-sook suddenly shows up banging drunkenly on Sun-hee’s door in the middle of the night.
Now how she even knows that Jung-rae is back down on the shoreline and not in Seoul, or how she knows that he is lying abed in some random woman’s apartment, these questions are unanswered, but fine, I guess she could come by that information. But the “why” is never asked, never even in passing, and thus there is never any answer to this man’s allure.
The fallout the next day, as Jung-rae plays one woman off against the other, all chattering on endlessly about trivial hang-ups, is equally mysterious and nonsensical to the point where I stopped believing that I was watching actual human beings possessed with a full complement of emotions and rational thought, and was instead observing some sort of bizarre alien recreation of what human behavior must be like, observed from outer space by some intelligence not familiar with our species.
Director (the real one, of the actual film) Hong Sang-Soo obviously thinks he’s mining fertile territory here, and that his film is a profound meditation on the common romantic misunderstandings between the sexes. Couched thematically and stylistically in terms of a comedy of manners, Woman on the Beach is neither particularly funny, nor especially mannered.
It is, to its credit, a very measured and deliberately crafted film, perhaps too much so (composed of long static shots, the film is aggressively inert), evoking easy references to Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen (not meant as compliments). But it’s all a charade, a shell game concealing a rotten core that is hardly worth five minutes of one’s time, let alone over two interminable hours.
I think I’m supposed to feel like I’m a lazy, or even ignorant, viewer and critic if I can’t – or won’t—suss out the manifold strengths of Woman on the Beach amid all the tedium, and see that auteurist genius at work here. And perhaps I am lazy, or perhaps I’ve just wasted too much time in the past on exactly the same sort of indulgent nonsense as presented here, and the limits of my patience have been passed. Perhaps I am taking this frustration out a bit unfairly on a film that, at the end of the day, is really just a bit of harmless arthouse piffle, generally unseen, and easily forgotten.
Or perhaps I’m totally right in my total dismissal of it, and the whole cadre of cineaste critics lined up behind Woman on the Beach, effusive in their universal praise are just dead wrong. And if I can just save one person, just one, from making the same mistake I did here, then I will have succeeded at my charge.
Woman on the Beach arrives on DVD two years after its release with a few features which enhance the film in no appreciable way. Interviews with the cinematographer (whose praise of Sang-soo’s choice of long static shots seems to be colored by relief of not having to have done all that much on set) and the composer (the jaunty score, little heard in the film, is actually its only strength) add nothing to the discussion, nor does the abbreviated behind the scenes feature.