Woman on the Beach

un film de Hong Sang-soo

Hong Sang-soo, darling of the international festival circuit, and Korean cinema's most abstruse emissary to the western world, has done it again - and by again, I mean just that. Hong has again, as he did with Tale of Cinema before this and Woman is the Future of Man before that, repeated himself. As each successive film has been able to blend seamlessly with the one before it, Hong has managed to create one decade-or-so long masterwork, cut and pared down to easy, though still quite esoteric, manageable shapes and sizes. And if you are wondering if I am using this descriptive of repetitive, almost territorial filmmaking, to praise Hong or to pan Hong, the answer is yes.

Now being a born and bred Auteurist, weaned upon the Cahiers du Cinema critics and Andrew Sarris' categorisation of The American Cinema, I fully understand and equally acknowledge the idea of a certain type of repetition in filmmaking, vis-ŕ-vis the connective tissue running through a director's oeuvre, yet, it is one thing to repeat certain motifs or such in your filmmaking - an auteur's signature if you will - and it is quite another to create film after film after film that are indistinguishable from one another, yet this is just what Hong has done film after film after film. Granted Hong's films are solid well-crafted works that are quite the cut above the average filmmaker working today, so it is not so much his talent that I bring into question but his over-reliance on ingemination.

Of course those who would be so inclined as to disagree with my assertation on Hong, could easily bring up the career of Yasujiro Ozu as a counterpoint, for more than any other filmmaker in cinematic history, Ozu is certainly one of the most repetitive, yet at the same time one of the most beatific of auteurs. Ozu's certainly was an insular world, and though his use of many of the same actors throughout his films could easily account for much of that, there was more to it than just that. Ozu's was a world at once realistic and yet with an ethereal feel to it throughout. A kind of magic if you will. With his unusually quiet camera style and use of 'pillow shots' - buffering one scene from another in much the same way Antonioni would do years later - Ozu created a world as bewitched as it was real. Hong on the other hand, being the inferior filmmaker (and that is in no way a knock since most filmmakers would come up short when compared to the likes of Ozu) only plays at the kind of omnipresent enchantment Ozu has created in his long and distinguished career. Feeling less like the pragmatical thaumaturgy of an auteuristic world such as Ozu's (or Dreyer's or Mizoguchi's or Antonioni's for that matter) and more like a series of meticulously structured Kinko's copies flailing out of the machine that is Hong Sang-soo, director, every eighteen months or so, Woman on the Beach is both a disappointment and a triumph.

Hong's film is a disappointment due to it being the same old same old (I would love to see Hong take on something different, even if it were a failure, just to find out what the filmmaker was all about), yet the film is also a triumph due to it being the director's most mature - and cinematically satisfying - work to date. Though he may be repeating motifs of duality and triangularity, either in relationships (Woman is the Future of Man, Turning Gate) or in reality itself (Tale of Cinema) Hong has grown more secure with each successive piece of his career-spanning puzzle. Woman on the Beach, which incidentally (and quite unsurprisingly) is about a love triangle involving aloof thirty-something artists (in this case a director, his trusty writer and the writer's girlfriend of sorts - as well as a second woman to efficiently replicate the first in Hong's obsession with a dual universe), is not only Hong's most mature film to date, it is also his most classical - and by classical I again, with the irony of sounding just as repetitive as Hong ringing in my ear, refer back to the classicism of Ozu.

Certainly not my favourite of Hong's - my penchant for esotericism leads me more toward the dream/reality of Tale of Cinema - but certainly Woman on the Beach is Hong at his most sophisticated. Again, to ironically repeat myself one more time, a sophistication not unlike Ozu's but also a sophistication - an elegance even - just as easily comparable (if not quite the unlikely comparison) to the films of Lubitsch and René Clair. All in all, though he may be the most repetitive of today's filmmakers (at least the most repetitive amongst the good ones - we'll leave the cookie-cutters of modern mass market movie-making to their own devices) it is a repetition that works on some level - some level. For Hong, as for others it is a cadence of sorts. An alliterative persistence of memory. A cyclical interweaving love poem even.

Of course this could all just be me not knowing what to make of an obviously talented director who never waives from a preset form. For in truth, most auteurs, from the Pantheonic Hitchcock to the Far Side of Paradise of Capra or Nicholas Ray to the Strained Seriousness of Stanley Kubrick, are repetitive in one way or another - repeating themes and stylistic flourishes. Where would Fellini be without his unique peasant faces and comic circusry? Altman without his overlapping dialogue and long takes? Scorsese without his lush pans and bloody frames? Bergman without his lapsed God? Wong Kar-wai without his lyrical shots and deep passionate crimsons? Hong without his love triangles and distant characterizations? In sum, where would cinema be without its auteurs and where would Hong be without his repetition? [01/31/08]