There are two sides to every relationship story, and in “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” we get both. South Korean helmer Hong Sang-soo’s highly engaging, dryly humorous third feature is his best and most accessible to date, continuing his offbeat examination of the role chance plays in human affairs without the artier pretensions that sometimes clouded his previous pics, fest favorites “The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well” and “The Power of Kangwon Province.” Despite being shot in B&W, “Virgin” has enough audience-connecting qualities to seduce niche auds in the West.
The playful tone, almost early-’60s French New Wave in feel, is signaled by the pic’s division into five captioned segments, with the longer ones subdivided by onscreen numbers.
In the first, “Day’s Wait,” the concerned-looking Jae-hoon (Jeong Bo-seok) arrives in a hotel room and on his mobile convinces an unseen woman to meet him there. This short seg is resolved only in the final one, “Naught Shall Go Ill When You Find Your Mare,” by which time the viewer has been plugged into the couple’s backstory.
Second seg (“Perhaps Accident”) continues the man’s viewpoint as it takes the audience back in time. Jae-hoon turns out to be the owner of an art gallery, where he’s visited by an old school pal, indie TV producer Yeong-su (Mun Seong-keun), and his assistant, the pretty but inexpressive Yang Su-jeong (Lee Eun-ju). Jae-hoon falls for Su-jeong during a drunken dinner, and their relationship slowly, awkwardly grows. After several tries by Jae-hoon to make love to the virginal young woman, she finally agrees to meet in a hotel on Cheju island, Korea’s honeymoon hot spot.
Brief central chapter, “Suspended Cable Car,” shifts the perspective back to the present and to the woman. Su-jeong is on her way to a hotel in Seoul and calls Jae-hoon on her mobile; she’s getting cold feet about their assignation, but he convinces her to see it through. First, however, she takes a sightseeing detour, and gets trapped in a cable car by a power failure.
Fourth seg (“Perhaps Intention”) revisits the past from her viewpoint. When they were thrown together by work, Su-jeong had grown close to Yeong-su, though his married status held her back from any major commitment; after being introduced to Jae-hoon, she in fact engineers their subsequent “chance” meeting and, despite their fumbling romance, seems convinced he’s the man for her.
The idea of showing both sides of the story doesn’t produce any great truths about male-female relationships, and — as in “Kangwon Province,” which also rewound a story — helmer-scripter Hong is often more concerned with playing with the audience (and its perceptions of time) than anything else.
But the ironic tone is so precisely maintained here that the game becomes the pic’s main pleasure, especially when it’s as well performed as it is here.
Notably, pic was shot in sequence, with cast and crew revisiting locations for recurring scenes. Technique gives an entirely separate feel to the man’s and the woman’s stories, rather than simply applying different camera angles to the same performances.
Further recalling ’60s Gallic models like Truffaut (“The Soft Skin”) and Godard (“Une femme mariee”), Choi Yeong-taek’s monochrome lensing of cold, icy Seoul is consistently impressive. The use of music in occasional chunks helps to keep the material from taking on a conventional romantic-drama feel.
In a very different role from her flirtatious younger sister in “Rainbow Trout,” Lee is a striking screen presence as the taciturn, determined Su-jeong, who knows exactly what she’s doing and, in the final seg, as she dons her white nightgown just before losing her virginity, lets the audience know she’s gotten it on her own terms.
Jeong gets considerable mileage out of his blankly humorous character, and the experienced Mun, as Su-jeong’s quietly amorous boss, brings some emotional color to the monochrome, wintry settings.
Pic’s curious English title, which refers to a famous glass installation by surrealist Marcel Duchamp, seems unnecessarily eggheady. The flirtatious Korean title, “Oh! Su-jeong” — as in, say, “Oh … Rosalinda!” — not only reflects the movie’s underlying comic tone but also makes sense of the funny final joke in the dialogue.