Judge Joel Pearce's woman bought him a funnel cake at the beach.
A tale of art, love, and sand.
Not many people in North America have heard of Hong Sang-soo, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. While so much of the Korean industry has been focused on creating films with commercial appeal over the past decade, Woman on the Beach is part of the true Korean new wave. It is an art film through and through, destined to be passed over by the majority of potential viewers, despite its subject matter. In the end, that may not be a bad thing.
The film follows Director Kim (Seung-woo Kim, Spring Breeze), a troubled filmmaker searching out an idea for his next script. For inspiration, he enlists the help of a friend, who brings along an attractive woman named Mun-sook (Hyun-jung Go). Both men are drawn to Mun-sook, but she is immediately taken by Kim's charisma and reputation as a director. Still, the middle of a scriptwriting session seems to be a bad time to start up an affair, especially for a man who is so trapped by his own impulsive nature.
Hong Sang-soo is fascinated by broken relationships, and there are times that his fascination clouds his judgment in his scriptwriting. Woman on the Beach is a great example of this. The first half of the film is actually quite a delight. It is a touching analysis of human nature, as two completely different men fall in love with the same woman.
The dialogue is sincere and patiently paced. While it often seems like the characters are wandering through arbitrary subjects, each one digs a bit deeper into the nature of who they are and reveals the bonds and wedges between them. It's funny, too, not usually in the traditional sense, but each one of the characters is realistic, pathetic, and believable. By the midway point, I really wanted to see how the situation would turn out, especially the relationship between the two friends once Mun-sook had decided which of the men she wanted to be with.
Then, halfway through, the movie takes a strange turn. We jump to two days later, and the whole film changes. Kim's friend vanishes, and with him goes any comic tendencies. Director Kim is a jerk throughout the film, but when another woman enters the story and he starts trying to juggle a relationship with both, the film spins out of control. Since we don't particularly like him, we ultimately don't want to see him succeed with either girl. His pathetic nature ends up overwhelming any natural charm that he shows in the first half.
The pessimism of the second half might work in some stories, but it's absolutely disastrous in a comedy. I found myself thrown off balance, and the film that enthralled me with its humanity at the beginning ended up frustrating me at the end, when I no longer cared about the characters or what would happen to them. The end is somewhat satisfying, because I like what Mun-sook does, but it takes far too long for her to reach that point. It's sort of like an American romantic comedy, but with all of the likeability and warmth sucked out. While the end result may be more satisfying for fans of arthouse fare, I found it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
As always, New Yorker films hasn't really rolled out the red carpet for Woman on the Beach in terms of the DVD transfer. While it's at least anamorphic, the video quality is strictly subpar. Some sequences are bright and colorful, while others are bland and listless. There is strange color bleeding and shadow artifacting in some sequences, and the whole transfer is quite washed out. The sound is better, though the 5.1 track sounds like a stereo source expanded across the full soundstage, rather than a mix designed specifically for the format. The disc has a couple of featurettes and interviews, as well as a booklet with a printed interview with Hong Sang-soo.
I suspect that true fans of arthouse romance will find a lot more to appreciate in Woman on the Beach than I have. It does have strong performances, and the first half has a wicked humor that is both captivating and genuine. It's that awkward shift in the middle that keeps me from recommending it too highly—I guess I have some old-fashioned notion that we should feel something about main characters at the end of the film, at least something beyond mild pity.
Woman on the Beach is hereby banned from the beach. We want to have
fun on the beach, darnit.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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