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Original Title:
Haebyeonui yeoin

South Korea 2006

Drama, Romance

Hong Sang-soo

Kim Seung-woo
Ko Hyun-jung
Kim Tae-woo
Song Seon-mi
Choi Ban-ya
Lee Ki-woo
Oh Tae-kyung
Jung Chan

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Woman on the Beach

Story: Movie director Kim Jung-rae (Kim Seung-woo) talks his friend Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) into going with him on a trip to the beach so that he can recharge his batteries and get some inspiration for his newest script. However, Chang-wook is only going with him if they can take his girlfriend Mun-suk (Ko Hyun-jung) with them. Together the three spend a nice day at the beach and it turns out that Mun-suk doesn't see herself as Chang-wook's girlfriend. Jung-rae is happy to hear that because he soon is interested in the woman himself. The two eventually spend the night together, but can keep it a secret from Chang-wook who still believes that he and Mun-suk are a couple. When Jung-rae is suddenly more reserved the next day and tells the woman that he first has to think about his feelings she goes back to Seoul with Chang-wook. But Jung-rae soon realizes that he actually has feelings for the woman and tries to reach her, but without success. Eventually, he meets the woman Sun-hee (Song Seon-mi), who resembles Mun-suk, in the small coastal town and wants to spend the night with her. The next day Mun-suk is coming back, though, and a chaotic set of emotions has to be sorted first if the relationship of the two is supposed to have any chance at all...

Review: I have to admit that, if you can believe the words of some critics, I have inexcusably neglected one of Korea's most important directors: Hong Sang-soo. Up until now I had only seen "Tale of Cinema" from him which couldn't really excite me that much, but that has been a few years ago and probably I have also matured as a viewer and am more open to demanding analyse work that his characters and stories require you to delve into. Because "Woman on the Beach" is in fact an interesting art house movie that doesn't only center around a complicated relationship but also mercilessly pulls people's flaws to the foreground and eventually all of the time questions the truth value of any word coming out of the mouths of the protagonists. That is since the characters themselves might believe that they are honest but ultimately their rationalized attempts at self-reflection are accused to be nothing more than lies by their emotions. Director Hong Sang-soo on the other hand was often accused that his movies are misogynous. Most likely that's because of the devoted and chaste picture of a woman that he is often drawing in his films, but his female characters have without a doubt actually become stronger. Or they are at least as weak as their male counterparts.

In the center of the movie is a love triangle. At first between Jung-rae, Mun-suk and Chang-wook, later latter one is replaced by Sun-hee. It is interesting to see how men are acting when it comes to their love interest. Of course, they play the active part and Mun-suk behaves rather passive, feminists will find a point of vantage here as well since after all Mun-suk says: "I don't mind, if you want me you can have me." But this picture changes as the film progresses. When the love triangle includes Sun-hee, women are outweighing men and they are also more active. Sun-hee may say that she surely won't spend the night with Jung-rae to avoid giving him any false hope, but apart from that likely lie it's her who is calling the shots and even drives away a roughneck who in fact only wants to annoy the director because he has been treated badly by him before. Mun-suk and Sun-hee seek a dialogue, eventually, something that Jung-rae and Chang-wook haven't done at any time in order to get clarity about their interest in Mun-suk.

In the end you even get the feeling that women are the stronger party in this movie. Mun-suk can free herself of the circle of desire, longing, loneliness and dependency by virtue of her own strength since she is quite aware of her weaknesses. It's almost as if one morning she is getting up as an enlightened person. Jung-rae, however, may be able to confess his weaknesses to Mun-suk, but he can't change anything about them. He hopes to have his girlfriend's understanding and even tries to walk down childish paths in order not to show his weaknesses just by demanding of Mun-suk to understand him and be lenient after he has told her of his thoughts. But are these really intimate confessions? Director Hong Sang-soo often makes us doubt that. There are too many inconsistencies between what's said and what's done eventually. As a viewer you have to be constantly attentive not to miss any important information.

Director Hong Sang-soo also criticies the Korean society and the falsehood of man. And I don't mean man as in the opposite of woman because he indirectly shows that women are as deceitful as men. Mun-suk has spent some time in Germany and talks about people there being a bit boring, but honest and more leisure. Mun-suk misses honesty in Korean men. But what kind of honesty is she expecting of Jung-rae exactly? He has come to the coast town in order to write a screenplay and find some inspiration for that in the shape of an adventure. Can Man-suk really not figure out that much? Why doesn't she listen the her own words? Apparently, she isn't honest as well. At least not with herself, that is. The feelings shown in "Woman on the Beach" are complex, multi-layered and concerning their dishonesty absolutely honest and authentic. That's also what's making the film so captivating. Furthermore, there are some pretty funny scenes, which is rather uncommon for the director, and they can nicely lighten up the mood.

Hong Sang-soo uses long shots in which he almost lets his actors improvise, it seems, so that everything feels really natural. Nevertheless, I still can't get used to his way of zooming in on the characters in the middle of a shot. This makes us aware of the invisible wall between audience and movie and unnecessarily so. Apart from that those long shots can also create a very special dynamic which leads to a nice tension especially during the first half of the movie when the characters are introduced to us. Sadly, later on the movie loses a bit of its focus, even though there are still some nice dialogues with philosophical insertions and subtle worldly wisdom worked in. In the end, it's the characters and the mix of melancholic and sweet mood that can hold together the film. The ending is mature and leaves us with a content smile on our face when the credits roll, during which you have to take your time to reflect about a few things as well. "Woman on the Beach" could arouse my interest in the other works of Hong and stands as an honest drama that actually should even be called naturalistic. In any way it feels as if being taken out of real life thanks to the complexity of the feelings depicted.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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