Drinking with Hong Sang-soo is an intense experience. Supremely awkward conversations transpire over tables littered with empty soju bottles. The primary topic is sex and the details quickly get personal. It's exactly like a scene from one of his films. Or so it seemed during a group dinner honoring Hong at last year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Drinks vanished. Secrets were told. And all present tried to forget about it by the next day.
Scenes of clumsy inebriation are the essence of Hong's cinema, and 2006's Woman on the Beach is no exception. Over the course of seven movies (excluding the new Night and Day), Hong has repeatedly examined the complicated romantic entanglements of heterosexual Koreans. His scenes often take place in restaurants or domestic parlors, as people sit, drink, talk, and ultimately either seduce or reject each other during extremely long takes. Reportedly, Hong gets his actors drunk before shooting these scenes.
Invariably, Hong's films focus on a male protagonist trying to bed a woman. These men are always artists; frequently they are film directors. In these respects, Woman on the Beach is quintessential Hong. It also revives his focus on troubled Seoul-dwellers who leave the city for peace of mind. But there's an essential shift in emphasis: the woman in the story ends up as complex a creation as the men. A female musician pursued by a film director and his set designer, she's no virgin stripped bare by her bachelors.
Woman on the Beach isn't as formally rigorous as Hong's previous films, and it spells out matters that might have been implicit in an earlier work. But this should only matter to hardcore Hong-heads. The biting observations remain, and they've never been funnier.
The woman at the center of Woman on the Beach says she "[doesn't] respect Korean men too much." Hong's male characters are indeed selfish, unreliable drunks. But they're bastards with charm.
WOMAN ON THE BEACH
Opens Fri/20 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas