Hong depicts humanity as weaknessDirector Hong Sang-soo has always been branded as a stark realist in Korean cinema. His films are known for skipping stylistic devices in the pursuit of raw realism and he is notorious for getting his actors drunk on set and improvising dialogue on the day of shooting. His productions hop from grungy soju joints to seedy motel rooms and make unsuitable date movies for multiplex audiences as he depicts lust and hypocrisy as a basis of humanity.
Hong’s films on modern Korea have earned the praise of many critics and have been shown at major film venues as icons of new-wave Korean cinema. Yet they have never attracted serious praise from the foreign press, mainly for failing to meet the taste for exotic themes.
In his latest film, “Woman on the Beach,” he poses a familiar storyline to his earlier films, which often involve accidental romance, indecisive male leads ― who are often viewed as Hong’s alter ego ― and their hidden motives.
In the movie, the male lead Jung-rae (Kim Seung-woo) is a film director who has taken a trip to a beach to refresh his mind before he finishes a script. There he juggles romances with two women he meets, both of whom he sleeps with a day apart.
Like most of Hong’s films, the storyline is never the film’s substance. In fact his sense of realism always seems as if he is trying to minimize the story’s incidents to accentuate the tension of each moment.
Instead of drama, the film is overwhelmed with frequent discords. A typical scene: The camera follows two females clad in black running outfits and baseball caps as they speed walk on a random street. One woman trips but she quickly gets up and continues walking as if nothing had happened. In another scene, the film shows a scene of a cherry tree in full bloom on a beautiful spring day, but as the camera slowly moves back, there is a trash can beneath the tree full of garbage.
Then there are curious twists, which leave the audience unaware of Hong’s motive until the film ends. One example: One of the joggers from the earlier scene, whose face was hidden under her cap, is one of the womn Jung-rae later sleeps with. The audience only discovers that through the DVD supplement.
One of the more poignant scenes in the film is when Jung-rae, who is depicted as an ideal liberalist in his films, turns away from Mun-suk, the girl he sleeps with on the first night of his stay, slightly disturbed by her confession that she has had three serious relationships with men she had met in Germany.
Hong turns virtually every aspect of humanity into a subject of ridicule, though his later films show that he is slowing turning away from mockery to a sense of humor. Hong shamelessly illustrates the art of pretense, but almost in the tone of certain acknowledgement.
Mun-suk seems to take a certain pleasure in Jung-rae’s contradictions. “You are very different from your films,” she tells him. Yet that doesn’t make her turn away from his imperfection.
In a way Hong’s films are loose on moral standards; perhaps we are all cheap, but after all, we are only human.
by Park Soo-mee