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It has been said that in America sex is an obsession, while in Europe it is a fact. If the characters in Sang-Soo Hong's Woman on the Beach are representative, it is also an obsession in Korea.
In the film, the male lead, film director Jung-Rae Kim, has affairs with two women, Moon-Sook and Sun-Hee, during a spring weekend at a seafront resort. Late in the film, when the two women meet for lunch, they ask each other about their deepest fears. One says it is obsession; for the other it is betrayal. These two themes, embedded within the overriding question of whether life is truly better in the new affluent Korea, dominate the 2 hours and 7 minute version of the movie that was shown at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
According to IMDb the American version is only 1 hour and 40 minutes, and indeed, for American tastes, much could have been shortened. For example, the scene in which one of Moon-Sook sees Director Kim with the other woman, Sun-Hee, through the resort's picture window that overlooks the sea. She gets into her car parked beneath the window, starts the engine, and for an interminable minute, we watch the car sitting there with the engine running. Finally she turns off the engine and walks away. Powerful stuff? Well, not for this American moviegoer.
Indeed Director Hong beats the viewer over the head with symbolism to make sure no one misses his points. A white dog abandoned by the side of the road represents the betrayal that all the key players show toward one another. A bicyclist left choking on the dust of a passing car is just one reminder that the new Korea is not always better than the old. But when it comes to showing obsessions, Hong outdoes himself. In one scene, Director Kim draws a triangle on a napkin to graphically display the three images of his former wife's affair with a friend that obsess him. Only now he has something new to obsess over, for Moon-Sook admits she had two or three sexual encounters with foreigners when she lived in Germany. Were their dicks bigger than mine, he wonders. New dots on the napkin to obsess over! Ah, he must have new affairs to create new images in his mind so that he can replace the old triangles of obsession with new dots that create a more hopeful shape. Why doesn't he just see a therapist, we ask.
Hong is a talented director and the film gives Western audiences a feel for Korean obsessions and angsts. For that it's worth seeing, but after sitting through 127 minutes of beachfront betrayal and recriminations by people who are not really that likablekind of the Korean equivalent of the self-obsessed New Yorkers in Squid and the Whale, I'm not quite ready to see Hong's earlier works, such as The Day a Pig Fell into the Well.
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