Hong Sang-soo's career-long preoccupation with artists pining for women they can't have—while mistreating those they can—continues in Woman On The Beach, another bleak, bone-dry comedy of manners. Kim Seung-woo stars as a creatively blocked movie director who decides to blow off work and head to an off-season seaside resort with his production assistant and the PA's girlfriend, Ko Hyun-joung. The first half of the film is about their awkward impromptu vacation, as Kim subtly bullies his employee and cozies up to Ko, who has a crush on him—or at least the idea of him, based on his movies. In the second half, after Kim abruptly abandons Ko, he returns to the resort and becomes infatuated with another young woman, Song Sun-mi. Bit by bit, Kim tries to recreate with Song the circumstances of his whirlwind romance with Ko. And then Ko shows up unexpectedly.
Woman On The Beach is assured, artful, and easily Hong's most accessible film, if only because it isn't as turtle-paced or obscure as some of his earlier work. (Not to knock the likes of Turning Gate, Woman Is The Future Of Man, and Tale Of Cinema, all of which are superb in spite of their slowness.) Woman On The Beach serves as an anti-love story, illustrating the virtual impossibility of anyone finding the right man or woman to settle down with, because there are too many viable choices. The film is full of imagery that reflects the idea of replacement and abandonment, and Hong's main stylistic trick is to zoom in or out suddenly, revealing or concealing a third person, ever-hovering on the periphery of a couple.
There's a lot of triangulation in Woman On The Beach, including a long speech in which Kim sketches shapes for Ko and tries to explain how human relationships are the sum of their good parts, even though the resulting geometric figure is too complicated for us to fully appreciate. Kim—and Hong, for that matter—is also talking about the act of creation, which requires moments of divine inspiration coupled with long stretches of acting like a jerk in order to get into the proper frame of mind. Woman On The Beach is a stripped-down, witty explication of how we all get stymied by the impulses and options inherent in the simple act of living. Even in the final scene, Ko gets her stuck car moving again with the help of two men. That's right, two—because there's always another choice.