Effects of the Real
Tony McKibbin on Woman on the Beach

While South Korean cinema arrived on the international scene with a bit of a bloody splat in the last decade or so, with The Isle (2000), Bad Guy (2001), Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), and Oldboy (2003), and others playing up Jacobean violence, Hong Sang-soo more quietly wonders about the ways we can all be monsters. If one imagines a cinematic map with blue representing a melancholic bent, green an inclination towards nature, and black to despair, then South Korean film would surely be red. Yet one reason Hong seems such a delight isn’t only because he goes easy on the ketchup, but also that he seems wary of over-representation in any manifestation. His importance resides in a troubling subtlety: he’s not one for saturating the mise-en-scène when he can allude more intriguingly to off-screen space.

How does he generate this subtlety? “People tell me that I make films about reality,” says Hong Sang-soo. “They’re wrong. I make films based on structures that I have thought up.” However, these structures vary between his many films: there seems quite a difference between the formal structure evident in Hong’s 2000 film Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, and the spatial repetition in his 2006 Woman on the Beach. In the former, Hong allows for scenes to be repeated from different points of view, as he breaks with linear structure—the film fits into a popular play with narrative modes evident in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Hilary and Jackie, The End of the Affair. In Woman on the Beach, the repetitions are not formally derived but spatially and psychologically developed within a linear narrative. It is as though Hong wanted here to make a film about reality, but at the same time incorporate the structures that he thinks up within realist expectation, rather than formalist patterning.

Most of the film takes place around a half-empty resort complex next to the beach, a narrative non-place which at one moment the leading character, film director Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo), chooses to leave because it is too quiet: he doesn’t think he’ll be able to write there. Yet it is the perfect place for Hong to set a film where he wants the echoes he captures in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, but without the formal devices used to get there. Instead the repetitions come through Joong-rae’s compulsive need to start another affair no sooner has the last one finished, as well as the location’s minimal available possibilities. This is Vertigo by other means, with Joong-rae interested in another woman at the resort after he decides to return (or has never left), and the person he’s already slept with, composer Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung), apparently back in Seoul, along with his production designer, Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo). Chang-wook is no less interested in Moon-sook, yet his married status and only modest success with her (a brief kiss), work against him when the director makes a more forceful move on the composer. With Moon-sook now elsewhere, Joong-rae picks up another young woman who vaguely resembles Moon-sook, and sleeps with her in a scene similar to the earlier one; the absurdity of the scenario is emphasized by our awareness that Moon-sook has returned and ends up sleeping on Joong-Rae’s doorstep while he is busy with the other woman.

If one invokes Vertigo, it isn’t because Hong is indebted to Hitchcock, but to understand how indifferent he is to the Hitchockian theme of emotional devastation redeemed by hints of necrophilia—even Hitchcock announced that Scottie wanted to sleep with a dead woman. Scottie wants to remake a woman in the image of the previous person he loved; Joong-rae here wants another liaison a little like his earlier encounter. Repetition in Vertigo contains an element of Nietzsche’s eternal return, as Scottie is caught in a vortex of infatuation that incorporates a woman from the distant past, his own recent past, and then the present with Judy, the shop assistant he wants to resemble Madeleine, and who of course does. Much of the humor in Woman on the Beach resides in the contingent over the fatalistic, in the idea that Joong-rae looks like a man who stumbles from one emotional experience to the next. Even when he talks to Moon-sook about his insecurities coming from his ex-wife having slept with his best friend before they got married, it seems more like an excuse than a rationale. Scottie is a man haunted by other selves: by the policeman whom he failed to save at the beginning of the film, and later by Madeleine’s death, and then again by Judy’s demise; Joong-rae is someone who appears so insubstantial, so lacking in emotional gravity, that at one moment Moon-sook says she prefers his films to him, as if there is more substance to be found there than in his person. Both Scottie and Joong-Rae are haunted figures, but where Scottie’s haunting indicate psychological complexity, Joong-rae seems a figure of boyish shallowness.

Is it this sense that Hong creates superficial characters that leads him to say he is more interested in structures he has thought up than any notion of reality? What fascinates in Woman on the Beach is the combination of the formal structure embedded within situations and the way repetition captures this echo without the film foregrounding it. When a filmmaker replays a sequence from a different perspective, then we’re aware this new angle is commenting on the old one. This isn’t a choice the viewer makes; it is a position the film forces upon us. This variation on the thriller device announces the true nature of events at the conclusion and then flashes back to an earlier moment that we had been lead to misread. But part of what makes Woman on the Beach so fascinating is that the repetitions aren’t of monumental import, nor of formal significance, but suggestive, and subsequently perhaps more troubling in their apparent, relative insignificance and also in their proliferation.

Consider two scenes on the beach at night. In the earlier one, Joong-rae is there with Moon-sook and then later in the film with her look-alike. As they talk, we can tell he wants to replicate the earlier moment, and we might find ourselves trying to recall as precisely as possible what was said in the earlier encounter to see what he expects from this one. But we are hardly likely to recall with accuracy, and the echo remains indeterminate, the seduction different yet similar. Equally, when a couple with a dog whom Joong-rae, Moon-sook, and Chang-wook have met on the beach, later dump the dog on the highway after leaving the resort, we might wonder what in the sequence earlier could have led us to believe they would do this. Wasn’t the man a little hasty in leaving after Moon-sook showed affection to the dog? Also, in scenes almost replayed with minor variations in the restaurant, and in the lovemaking scenes in the hotel room, Hong asks us to recall without recall—to remember without the usual film cues of remembering.

What would a memory cue be? When a filmmaker zooms in on a close-up of a picture of someone on the wall, do we not take mental stock of that picture, since it is probable the person in the picture will prove relevant later on? Or when a film cuts to someone lurking in the background suspiciously, do we not again believe that is something of import? One thinks not of echoes and patterns in such instances, but of necessary plot elements. But when in Woman on the Beach Joong-rae and Moon-sook say they love each other as they lie in bed together, and then later in the film Joong-rae’s new lover Choi Sun-hee (Song Seon-me) shouts on the beach “I love you,” out to the sea, we can only infer how it connects to the earlier moment. This is an indeterminate echo, where the woman in the picture who turns out to be, say, the heroine’s actual mother in our example, is an important plot function. The picture doesn’t create an echo but a categorical foreshadowing of events to come, and events that will be narratively tidied up.

Hong’s interest in suggestive exploration over determined narrative explanation (or, the refrain of the foreshadowed) is of course consistent with his approach to character. Joong-rae is another of Hong’s loose cannons, a character who knows how to start a fight but probably wouldn’t know how to win one, who possesses sexual inadequacies he wants to compensate for with sexual prowess, and utilizes excuses rather than reasons for his behavior. When he loses his temper with a man in the cafe early in the film, it is of a piece with his later sudden decision to return home even as Chang-wook and Moon-sook are arranging a good deal for the hotel. It is not as if Joong-rae wants to assert his masculinity; it’s more that he wants sovereignty over his moods. This isn’t the sovereignty of self-control, however, but the opposite: the right to express whatever feeling as it comes to him no matter the fallout. Very early in the film, as Joong-rae, Chang-wook, and Moon-sook are standing against a railing looking out onto the beach, Joong-rae comments on the nature of their relationship, a moment that would have been a little impertinent asked directly to either of them alone, but it’s an impetuously insensitive question when they are both there. It’s as if Joong-rae possesses a certain social impatience; incapable of waiting for the appropriate time, he constantly pushes moments into situations, creating scenes.

This notion of creating a scene might help us understand the nature of Hong’s work. He doesn’t want dramatic development so much as personal revelation, utilizing characters who possess this capacity for surprising behavior, which singularizes them as characters. Whether it happens to be Joong-rae talking of his ex-wife’s affair, expressing his concerns about Korean women going with European men, or explaining his psychic state through a diagram; Moon-sook announcing that she loves Joong-rae after their first sexual encounter; or Joong-rae burying his head in the sand and asking for help, Hong’s characters are constantly creating scenes. They offer inopportune remarks or emotional expressions that don’t so much drive the story forward as deliberately stall progression; their feelings contain elements of the arbitrary, and thus the enigmatic. Script gurus insist on strong characters with clear goals; Hong’s skill is in finding weak figures with strong drives. Yet these are drives closer to the id than the ego; drives that fuss over immediate wants and reveal insecure feelings. When Moon-sook says “I love you” to Joong-rae, it is absurdly premature, and of course reveals not her feelings for Joong-rae but her feelings about herself. It is a performative act—not because it tells us about the present moment, but because it hints at her own emotional past. Equally, when Joong-rae wonders whether Chang-wook and Moon-sook are seeing each other, it reveals much about the three characters in the very awkwardness of the scene. Joong-rae is certainly forward, but the others are defensive, with Moon-sook saying that nothing is happening, and Chang-wook illustrating that he expected something definitely would. Chang-wook might be married, but that wouldn’t stop him, while at the same time there is the suggestion for all his ethical flexibility he is unlikely to have had much success: he takes Moon-sook’s brief kiss some time in the past as an inevitable invitation to sexual adventure.

Such moments generate echoes of scenes to which we haven’t even been witness. We are left to wonder exactly what that kiss might have been: a peck or a long smooch? Where the formal approach might have allowed the film to fold back on itself as it offered the scene from two different perspectives, Hong instead leaves it as a dangling dramatic aporia. Similarly, in the scene where the couple leaves the dog behind on the road, we aren’t privy to the reasons why they are doing so—the gap between the scene on the beach as they walk the dog and (apart from another brief scene on the beach) the moment when they leave it behind remains hidden from us. Revelations in Woman on the Beach aren’t of the formal or narrative variety; the revelation is the property of characters who know themselves a little but are ignorant of themselves enough to generate questions around their actions and motivations, and of a director who creates the space not only for the echo of repetition, but the echo of the original scene’s very absence.

If it has long been fashionable for filmmakers to create situations that have within them the possibility to be read very differently as formal device or narrative trick ( The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind), Woman on the Beach seems all the more disquieting because it possesses the ambiguous in the image and not only between the images. In other words, we don’t take a scene as the truth and then find we have to question it later: each scene here, as in other Hong films like The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, Turning Gate, and Like You Know it All, presents ambivalence in the characters and invites ambivalence in one’s response to them. This is properly character-based cinema, and sometimes a deceptively simple way to create astonishing complexity in film.

To conclude, two remarks come to mind. One is David Bordwell’s comment on his website Observations on Film Art, where he expands on the Hong quote we opened with. “It’s the structures, I think, that engage us, and partly by asking us to test our memories of what we saw only an hour or less before.” The second and more adventurous one comes from Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed, where he talks of the problem of “reading” or “seeing” film. “Reading is not an alternative to seeing but (as its root in a word for advising suggests) an effort to detail a way of seeing something more clearly, an interpretation of how things look and why they appear as, and in the order, they do.” One of the problems with formal devices is that they sometimes ask us to see things differently (to reassess our previous assumption), but don’t quite ask us to read what we see: in A Beautiful Mind, Fight Club, and others the interpretive work is being done by the film, as the film reads things differently for us. Hong is a director always looking for the possibility of reading his films rather than the viewer simply seeing them, and when he shows us different perspectives in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors it is closer to Resnais than to the Fincher of Fight Club: the interest is in the indeterminacy of perspective rather than in determining the revised, correct one.

Yet as Woman on the Beach illustrates, whether showing events from different angles formally, or implying different perspectives through characterization, Hong looks for ambivalence of response in all its manifestations. He might be an important filmmaker for formal reasons and for his disquieting, superficially unmotivated use of the zoom, and the punctuated use of music that is neither quite cue music or mood music, both worthy of essays in themselves. But there is a “reality” in Hong’s work that is at least as troubling as any given play with form; this way, Hong proves himself one of the most exciting and exacting of contemporary directors, a cause for much cinematic hope.