The title of Hong Sang-soo’s sixth feature functions like the South Korean director’s film itself: it’s a simple observation—with metaphorical teeth. The woman in question, Moon-sook (Ko Hyeon-geong), has two men vying for her affection: a film director named Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) and his production designer Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo). Chang-wook introduces Moon-sook as his “girlfriend,” a status she denies by claiming “we’ve only kissed once.” Her words clearly sting Chang-wook. But he’s not the only one in a state of discomfort. Everyone, apparently, is the “woman on the beach,” i.e., we are all isolated and ultimately alone.
When not aimlessly walking on the dismal and seemingly infinite expanse of sand—they’ve come to a ghostly off-season resort in the hopes that the fresh air will jump-start Joong-rae’s current script—the trio spend a lot of time sitting at small tables, either in cafés or hotel rooms, drinking, eating, smoking, and talking. Two sexual encounters punctuate the narrative, but in keeping with the film’s elliptical naturalism, they are not shown.
Hong has a deceptively simple director’s touch, an organic breeziness that makes things feel spontaneous and improvised. Laughter comes often to his characters—but if you think your way through Woman on the Beach’s structure (two halves that pivot on an act of betrayal), the film reveals itself as a tightly controlled, almost fatalistic bit of clockwork. That Hong can maintain a sense of absolute poise while his characters verbally (and physically) struggle with thorny subjects such as “Korean men,” xenophobia, infidelity, etc., is testament to his skill as a cinematic tightrope artist: he’s a director whose films walk the fine line between the heaven and hell of the quotidian.
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