Master of the beautifully modulated and devastatingly melancholy romantic farce, Korean director Hong Sang-soo's Woman on the Beach presents a pair of overlapping erotic triangles. Famous filmmaker Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) is having difficulty finishing his latest script; he prevails on his production designer, Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo), to accompany him to the off-season seashore. Chang-wook insists on bringing along a date, the aspiring composer Kim Moon-sook (Ko Hyun-joung), who turns out to be an independent type and cracks up the director by breezily dismissing his hapless assistant: "By the way, he's not my boyfriend." Soon the director is making an inebriated pass at Moon-sook—and then, because he can't control himself, launching into an extended tirade about Asian women and foreign men. She sleeps with him anyway, and he flees back to Seoul the next day. As minor characters wander in and out of the action, the wintry beach comes to seem an existential landscape. This is particularly apparent in the movie's second movement, when Joong-rae returns to the seashore and finds himself pursuing another woman whom he believes resembles Moon-sook. It's research: His script has mutated into the story of his one-night affair. But that soon comes unhinged when Moon-sook returns to the beach. Albeit not as textured as Hong's past films, Woman on the Beach is no less engrossing—a rueful tale of karmic irony, squandered second chances, and unforeseen abandonment.
Ko resolutely remains her own Woman.
Runs at Grand Illusion, Fri., May 30–Thurs., June 5. Not rated. 127 minutes.