Saturday, January 12, 2008

Woman on the Beach

In Woman on the Beach, director Hong Sang-Soo dissects the complex geometry of romance with true mathematical precision. A typical scene: a woman and two would-be lovers seated around a table in a seaside motel, the woman facing the camera, the men to either side. As the men attempt to win her favor, the conversation turns to the question of her former lovers during her time studying in Germany, a question that triggers a series of irrational, jealous fears in the suitors and results in a dismissive response from the woman. But the psychological messiness that Hong exposes in his characters is countered by a streamlined formal control. Having framed his figures in a tightly composed medium shot, the director confines his camera movements to three moderate-tempo, even-handed zooms (two in, one out) that he employs at regular intervals throughout the sequence and which cleanly subdivide the physical space even as Hong begins breaking down the illogical attitudes that play such a large part in the romantic process.

No sooner has this initial triangle been resolved - with the woman, Moon-sook (Hyun-jung Go) sleeping with one of the men, Joong-rae (Seung-woo Kim) - then the latter grows tired of his conquest and, the film, skipping ahead two days, offers a second grouping of romantic hopefuls, this time with Joong-rae at the crux of the triangle. Conflicted over his rapid dismissal of his recent lover, he takes up with a second woman he meets at the seaside town, a woman whose appeal paradoxically rests on her resemblance to Moon-sook, only to find his first lover returning to the scene, making desperate demands on his attention. What allows Hong to effectively modulate all this intricate geometry is his understanding of the ways in which individuals act out of a range of unclassifiable motives and his refusal to saddle his characters with the simple motivational explanations of basic causality (or any more complex psychological readings, for that matter). And yet each unexplained action is wholly convincing. From Joong-rae's outburst at the perceived rudeness of a waiter at a sushi restaurant to the decision of a minor character to abandon his lover's dog by the side of the road, each gesture is endowed with the knotty ambiguity of life. But, for all this uncertainty of motive, Hong's total control of his material and his formal rigor - his fixed shots, flawless composition and mathematically precise zooms - ensure that the presentation of these largely irrational acts is effected with complete clarity and remains utterly exact in its articulation.

The central presence hovering behind all these complex groupings is the beach of the title, significantly not a sunlit summer beach, but a nearly deserted winter seascape, the sky, ocean and sand scarcely differentiated shades of gray. With the exception of the opening scene, which takes place in Seoul, the entire picture unfolds at this seaside setting, a tightly circumscribed world that, through its limited variety of locales, ensures the constant meeting of its characters in a way that would be impossible in a city milieu. The same backdrops are repeated: a motel room, a restaurant, a grocery store. But it is to the beach that the characters constantly return; it is the setting which cements Joong-rae's relationship with both of his lovers, but it is also, in its denatured color scheme, clearly suggestive of a sort of generalized spiritual malaise.

At the film's conclusion, having made a final break with a temporarily repentant Joong-rae, Moon-sook drives her car on the beach one last time, only to find her wheels sticking in the wet sand. Aided by two young men who rush to her assistance, she succeeds in disentangling her vehicle. Suggestively, she insists on offering the men a reward for their efforts, but they refuse and, extricating herself at last from the beach, she drives off to resume her life in the city. Whether or not she has been able to effect any alteration in her disjointed amatory patterns (and her interactions with the two young men suggests she may easily fall back into the same habits) is an open question, but a return to the narrow world of the seaside and its central feature - the gray beach, with its patina of erotic frustration - seems to be a possibility that Moon-sook, for all her unresolved romantic attitudes, no longer feels the need to consider.

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