There are only a handful of filmmakers working today of whom it can truly be said that each film of theirs takes us into a world instantly recognizable as the product of that filmmakers' mind. Claire Denis certainly comes to mind, as do such masters as Aleksandr Sokurov, Kim Ki-duk, Tsai Ming-liang, Catherine Breillat, and Michael Haneke.
Although his films haven't rec'd the same distribution in the U.S. as those esteemed names mentioned above, add Hong Sang-soo to that list. I've loved everything I've seen from him -- especially Woman Is The Future of Man -- but it was seeing Woman on the Beach recently at the Toronto Film Festival that confirmed him in my mind as one of the most assured hands in film today. His vision of modern life -- neurotic, self-obsessed urban adults still struggling with childish hang-ups as they attempt to balance careers and relationships with lust and alcoholism -- comes through vividly in this film, first with washes of warm humor and later with squrim-worthy insights into modern relationships.
It's tempting to make a comparison to Woody Allen in his late-'70s prime, and yet the humor here is subtler and more complex, with a sly contemporary sophistication all its own -- and the humor gives way to resonant drama more naturally than in most of Allen's work. Some characters get only a minute or two of screen time, yet feel more alive to me than leading characters in lesser films. What's more, it's also an exquisitely shot film, with an emotionally evocative setting likely to stick in your mind long after the lights come up.
Other than Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Syndromes and a Century," a film just as effective and affecting (although in very different ways), "Woman on the Beach" was the film that stood out to me the most from the 15 or so I saw at this year's Toronto Int'l Film Fest. Both films are film-art of the highest order, the kind of rich, challenging art-house fare that Wellspring would have given a U.S. theatrical run were they still around. Perhaps someone else will step up to the plate -- Palm Pictures, maybe, or Plexifilm? Here's hoping; movies like this one deserve to be seen all over the world -- and not just on home video!
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