Woman on the beach

By Fernando Ganzo

(leer en castellano / lire en français)

Funny how what attracted my attention the most in the last film by Hong Sangsoo ends up rocking the boat and somewhat sinking it. With In Another Country Hong revisits the event, so to speak. This time around we don´t get dizzy by the multiple intricacies of the many relationships that we saw in his previous film, The Day He Arrives. Back then, we as an audience knew of those intricacies; it was only the characters that were unaware of them. This time we see everything taking place before our eyes; reality pretty much unfolding for us as much as for the characters (and we don´t know what went before or what´s coming next). Actually, this time we see three stories, or maybe three variations of the same story, since they share common elements: a beach, a house next to a swamp, a small lighthouse (that they keep looking for but we never quite see), a French woman (Isabelle Huppert, although she is not always the same character), a filmmaker (although not always the same one, in spite of being played by the same actor in two of the stories, and being married with the same pregnant woman in both of them), and a lifeguard that it´s always the same character and is invariably wet and happy. The stories are so basic (the French woman is or will be with the filmmaker, but ends up having an affaire with the lifeguard) that the only source for humour is what we see physically within the frame. Naturally, it is mostly about the expression then, and (should anyone be worried about her) Huppert is more touching than ever. (Can anyone recall her being so light? Literally, for her heels don´t quite stick into the sand, and it looks as if she could fly sometimes). In the films of Hong Sangsoo (and it is also the case with other filmmakers that I like) characters tend to gesture a lot with their hands, and in this film, Mrs. Huppert poses and dances with her hands with a lightness that it is terribly erotic. Because, in fact, this film is about eroticism: funny and light, but honest. I think Mr. Hong probably lives eroticism in that way, for it is clearly there in the actual process of making the film. We saw that before in Woman on the Beach: the fixation with international sex and the primitive jealousy it prompts in South Koreans.

I now open a window in a chat and put my text aside. I very much doubt that my last sentence is intelligible at all, and I can´t quite explain how the presence of an international element becomes sexually arousing in various films by Hong; even when the spark for it it´s only that they speak about something foreign. I send the entire paragraph to Francisco Algarín. His response is so precise that I decide to include it here and it reads as follows:

“What do you mean by “international” when you use that word to write about sex regarding Woman on the Beach? I remember the following dialogue by the girl in that film: “German men are much more honest than Korean men, much more peaceful and sincere”. I think that the hostility of the two men that are with her comes across through the foreign guy. Then, one of them asks her to be shy about her privacy, while the other one encourages her to tell them about her sexual experiences. But she prefers to talk about how successful Korean women are with westerners (“exotic objects of their sexual fantasy”) and about one or two complexes common to Korean men. The scene ends with one of them defending the idea that “one has the obligation to live where she or he is from”. This scene could be the follow-up to a scene in Le Pouvoir de la province de Kangwon –that in which, in a brothel, a man asks the price of the Russian girls only to choose a Korean one- or in Turning Gate –after dancing to some Korean songs, a girl dances salsa for her two bewildered friends-. Or from Woman Is the Future of Man, where one of the characters is back in Korea after living a few years in the United States. Or from the previous to that one (and its reverse portrait), Night and Day (about a Korean guy living in Paris who only dates Korean women). As it is often the case in Hong´s films, arousal and annoyance go hand in hand”.

Hoping that my idea has now become clearer, I resume writing. The character played by Mrs. Huppert is a luminous object of desire that drives everyone man in the stories, regardless of their gender (black or white too, it´s essential for me, as Cantinflas used to say)—her beauty being hard to avoid. I will just say that this film is like a collection of short stories written by a brilliant writer, and in which sexual desire is pervasive.

But I don´t mean to say that, because this film is seemingly lightweight, the mise in scène is not a very precise one. In fact, however light and vivid all that hand gesturing may seem (though very much scripted), it is all part of a most rigorous aesthetic arrangement. Johan Cruyff use to say: “My forwards should only run for 17 yards, unless they´re stupid or asleep.” That is the case with the performances in this film: they are allowed a certain space within the frame to do what they must, but that´s all they get (and they don´t have any other concern), and that is why they seem to be doing something very complex in a light fashion. Simplicity is never simple.

In Another Country is a film with a trap, filled with strong decisions that go unnoticed. For instance: the characters and their goals in the film are all very clear, but objects, however, seem to have a life of their own; one that allows us to think that instead of being three variations on one subject, these stories could all merge into a continuous one or take place simultaneously. In the first story, for example, the characters are afraid of hurting themselves with a broken bottle on the seashore. In the third one, Mrs. Huppert´s character gets cheerfully drunk (out of desperation) and drops a bottle precisely by the shore. Another example: in the second story someone leaves an umbrella close to a wall, and in the third one, Mrs. Huppert´s character loses her umbrella only to find the one left by the wall; we could argue about the same thing happening with the framing, for there is a recurrent camera position overlooking the ocean that Mrs. Huppert´s character keeps coming back to—and that always seems to arouse new hopes or desires in her.

We have to explain that if the film seems to be sometimes a bit of a mess, is because we understand the humour behind the performers´ pronunciation, as they speak in English (the lifeguard is unforgettable when he says “I´ll protect you!”). In a way, with In Another Country, Hong is hinting us over the use of humour in his previous work; and we can´t help but to imagine that certain scenes or moments in his films may actually be hilarious, which further tells of the universal breath of his talent, for his films seemed already endlessly funny at the time, even if we were missing out somehow.

When I speak of a “trap” in the film is because I think that´s relevant for one reason, being that, at first glance, it may seem that Hong has done a feminist film with In Another Country. Let me explain myself. If I recall correctly, in the first shot of the film, a young girl talks with her aunt about how her uncle has played a dirty trick on them, and how mean and despicable he is. Furious and fed up, she then sits on a chair and begins writing a screenplay that, of course, is no other than the three stories that we are about to see. Ill at a man, ill at all men. In all three stories male characters are completely dumb. Both the filmmakers that want to seduce Mrs. Huppert´s character are either a coward hypocrite who wants to cheat on his pregnant wife or an obsessive and paranoid man who forces his wife to walk a few yards behind him and that doesn´t trust her—in the third story the monk is a fibber. It is only the lifeguard, who is both funny and dumb (and who is seen in the film as an erotic object as well, which goes to show how mature Hong is as a filmmaker, for only great filmmakers are capable of looking at both men and women with a sense of desire), that at the end seems to be someone both noble and naïve.

Things get trickier now, for at this point I would like to speak about the idea of repetition that we talked about (in reference to Hong Sangsoo) in the letters of issue number five of our magazine Lumière. It is as follows: repetitions (among his films or in one of his films) are a way to improve his craft. In the three stories written by the narrator of In Another Country, there are, of course, repetitions. And when we hear a dialogue been repeated (as, for instance, when the French woman asks the lifeguard for directions to the lighthouse), we notice that each time it is a bit better, or as if they had come up with a funnier approach to it (as it happens when the lifeguard produces a Chinese lantern and says: “since there´s no lighthouse…”). I am moved when I think of Hong, the perfectionist, who identifies with the very perfectionist burnt-out girl who writes stories to overcome her contempt for a man. In this case, however, Hong – whose women in The Day He Arrives were vilify without reservation- is different, and in the end (and after all the stories, and the yearns and fears of the French woman in her flowing variations and accumulations (dressed in blue in the first story, when she´s emotionally indifferent; in red in the second one, when she´s the seemingly naïve lover of a Korean man; and in green in the third one, when she´s lovesick and surrenders, more or less, to the lifeguard out of desperation), we being to think that the girl that wrote all three stories is a lot calmer now, up to the point of showing the imperfections of her female character and of being reconciled with her much-hated opposite sex. Everyone has reasons of their own.

Translated from Spanish by Hugo Obregón

Official Selection
South Korea. 2012. 89’
Director: Hong Sangsoo.
Script: Hong Sangsoo.
Cinematography: Park Hongyeol, Jee Yunejeong.
Editing: Sungwon Hahm.
Sound: Jongmin Yoon.
Music: Yongjin Jeong.
The cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jun-Sang Yu.