The vagaries of the human heart are scrutinized with bemused expertise in "Woman on the Beach." This is Korean buff favorite Hong Sang-soo's most accessible film, one that requires neither prior knowledge of his work nor specialist interest in Korean cinema. Pic possesses discreet charms that could put it over in international arthouse release.

The vagaries of the human heart are scrutinized with bemused expertise in “Woman on the Beach.” A wonderful, serious-minded romantic comedy-drama about a film director’s uncertain relations with two successive women while trying to write a script at an off-season beach resort, this is Korean buff favorite Hong Sang-soo’s most accessible film, one that requires neither prior knowledge of his work nor specialist interest in Korean cinema. Inexplicably turned down by the Venice fest but very well received in Toronto, pic possesses discreet charms that could put it over in international arthouse release given shrewd handling by a motivated distrib.

With their quotidian settings populated by youngish characters gabbing the days and nights away with the undercurrent of sex never distant, Hong’s films are often conveniently compared to those of Eric Rohmer. While there are significant differences, the superficial similarities are sufficient to suggest the upscale public that has periodically supported the prolific French cineaste’s unfailingly intelligent stories of men and women getting their signals crossed would equally enjoy “Woman on the Beach” if properly introduced to it.

At first, the story’s set-up seems almost too simple, not to mention self-referential, to hold great promise. Unable to set pen to paper on a script he needs to finish, film director Kim Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) asks his production designer, Won Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo), to join him at the west coast Shinduri beach resort in the hope of breaking the creative log-jam.

Chang-wook, who is married, agrees, provided he can bring along a girlfriend, composer Kim Moon-sook (former TV fave Ko Hyun-joung in her bigscreen debut).

The cool overcast means the trio have the area largely to themselves. Soon, Joong-rae becomes distracted by the bracingly forthright Moon-sook, who clarifies she is not Chang-wook’s girlfriend, just a friend, and that, if forced to choose between the two men, she’d take the moody, rough-around-the-edges director, whose work she admires.

Long walks and tactful circling ensue, and with them character revelation. The self-possessed but unfulfilled Moon-sook long entertained serious ambitions as a composer and studied music in Germany, but recently resigned herself to working in a more popular vein. For his part, the filmmaker’s surging infatuation is undercut by a deep insecurity he confesses to in relation to Western men, and Moon-sook’s admission that she dated Europeans cuts him to the quick.

Although the sluglike Chang-wook proves difficult to shake, Joong-rae finds a vacant apartment and brings the willing young woman there for one night together. Next day, he abruptly announces it’s too quiet at the beach for him to work and that he intends to return to Seoul, to the consternation of Moon-sook.

Second act sees the director returning, two days later, to Shinduri on his own. Leaving a message with Moon-sook as to his whereabouts, he interviews a young professional woman, Choi Sun-hee (Song Sun-mi), who reminds him of Moon-sook, and he soon gets her up to the same room from two nights before.

Moon-sook’s unannounced arrival ups the ante; it’s a situation ripe with farcical potential but one from which Hong mines significant insight and melancholy, notably in regard to the way people can fixate on certain ideas they develop about others and can react strongly to actions the perpetrators might consider insignificant.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of “Woman on the Beach” lies in its rhythms, the way it beautifully captures the natural flow of ongoing conversation, with its inevitable pauses, quicksilver changes of direction and alterations of tone. This rare quality exists within individual scenes as well as across the entire sweep of the story, which, like Rohmer’s work, is constructed with great care but disguises its formal elements behind a show of utter naturalism.

Visually, too, there is a deceptive simplicity. Compositions are arranged to serve character and dialogue, and Hong sometimes simply resorts to the common ’60s technique of reframing by zooming in or out to create or lose a closeup. But this does not prevent Shinduri, with its undistinguished, modern beachside condos and inns, from becoming a major character unto itself, and the significant scenes that play out along the seashore gain by the misty, vague ambiance that matches the iffy motives of the characters.

Four main thesps work in an unforced, untheatrical vein. Kim Seung-woo has just enough quiet, gruff charm to keep the director character from being too maddeningly self-absorbed, while Ko’s allure and complexity keep growing throughout the film.

Woman on the Beach

South Korea

Production

A Mirovision presentation in association with Max Venture Capital, C&S Intl.of a b.o.m. film production co-produced by Jeonwonsa. (International sales: Mirovision, Seoul.) Produced by Oh Jung-wan. Executive producer, Jason Chae. Co-executive producers, Paul Lee, Han Suk-ho. Directed, written by Hong Sang-soo.

Crew

Camera (color), Kim Hyung-koo; editor, Hahm Sung-won; music, Jeong Yong-jin; sound (Dolby Digital), An Sang-ho; sound supervisor, Lee Seung-chul; associate producer, Cho Jin-ah; assistant directors, Lee Kwang-kuk, Park Jung-sun. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 8, 2006. (Also in New York, Pusan film festivals.) Running time: 128 MIN.

With

Kim Joong-rae - Kim Seung-woo Won Chang-wook - Kim Tae-woo Kim Moon-sook - Ko Hyun-joung Choi Sun-hee - Song Sun-mi

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