I often wonder what's to be done with the genre of romantic comedy, or "rom-com". It's riddled with so very many problems, not the least of which is its absolute bankruptcy in every dimenson. The funniest part of this is that even rom-com fans — rom-com fandom here defined as the habitual spending of money on theatrical rom-com screenings — know the things suck. But they suck in the semi-appealing way that Big Macs suck: sure, they're bland and have been conceptually spinning their wheels for decades, but they're also near-universally available and tolerable (though never enthralling) to a gigantic swatch of the public. (I understand they also make reliably serviceable "date movies", though I feel unqualified to speak on that subject — my first "date movie" was Man on the Moon.)
My ears thus perked up when I heard of Sang-soo Hong ("the most Frenchified of contemporary Korean directors", according to J. Hoberman), a filmmaker who, I was told, makes films that are kinda-sorta like rom-coms, except that (a) they're more personal to him than standard rom-coms are to the breed of journeyman directors hired to helm them, (b) they eschew the usual set of blunt cinematic tools employed by rom-coms, such as their mechanical oscillation of close-ups and (c) they don't suck. Hong's Woman on the Beach, a window on a creatively stymied director who holes up at a seaside resort with his latest project's PD and a woman who becomes the object of both their desires, delivers and them some on the personalness, the skilled technique and the non-suckage. I thus wonder to what extent it maintains a connection to the rom-com family. Or, for that matter, the romance or comedy families; even "drama" might be a stretch. Its texture is a bit too rich for easily labeling, which is a fine sign indeed.
The picture retains the romance aspect — at least to the extent that there's some jealousy, confusion and sweet-love-makin' going on — and much of it is funny, though Hong treats these not as beats to hit but as simple aspects of humanity, which of necessity cannot be ignored. Woman on the Beach spreads out, encompassing a much wider variety of mood, action, interaction, and aesthetics than I recall seeing in any more canonical rom-com. It lacks the pressure on every single like — hell, every single shot — to grind foward the gears of some central relationship-reated conflict. This brings back to mind a few thoughts I've entertained recently about works of art as places in which audiences temporarily exist: as a result of their incessant crank-turning, most rom-coms create deeply unpleasant places to be, rushed and jittery environments bent out of shape to please. Hong here shows the tip of what I expect, when I move through his oeuvre to be a formidable iceberg indeed of cinematic place-creating ability.