This is a very funny scene. What makes it all the funnier—along with what makes Woman itself both very funny and very sad—is that the characters themselves, of course, do not see the inherent humor, or tragedy, in their situation. They react, but they don’t understand, especially when it comes to women. They seem women as conquests, or puzzles to be solved, or opportunities, but never once as people—no, not even when they proudly tell their friends so over Chinese food. They want to be seen as right, but they have no idea how to be right.
Woman is the second film I’ve seen by Korean director Sang-soo Hong (the first was ...Turning Gate), and after seeing only two of his movies I can understand why he’s considered to be in a class by himself. He has the same quiet, stately, unassuming approach as Yasujiro Ozu, Tsai-ming Liang, or Takeshi Kitano—he simply points the camera in extended takes and lets things happen as they must. That said, he’s no clone of those directors; his films are still unmistakably his. He trusts his characters to expose themselves in exactly the right ways, and he trusts the audience to maintain faith in him all the while. This is moviemaking for people who like to meditate on what a movie is about while it’s unfolding, not after it’s finished bludgeoning their senses into submission.
Woman uses a slightly fractured (but not confused) chronology to tell its story, with flashbacks to past events serving as ironic commentary on the present. The film opens with Hyeon-gon and Mun-ho meeting and dining, and after Mun-ho steps away from the table his friend catches sight of a woman outside. This triggers his memories of his girlfriend, Seon-hwa, whom the overbearing Mun-ho accused him of having abandoned when he left for America. We see that Mun-ho is only partly right: he stepped in when Hyeon-gon went away, but for all of his advice and dissent he’s just as hilariously inept with girls. At one point after he and Seon-hwa have made love, he stares at Seon-hwa’s naked shin and murmurs, “I didn’t know women shaved their legs!”
Hyeon-gon is not much better. Early in the film there is a disturbing sequence where an old flame of Seon-hwa’s shows up, abducts her and rapes her (off-camera), and Hyeon-gon tries to make love to her to “cleanse” her. He may not even believe openly that he’s God’s gift to women, or a superstud, or anything of that kind, but like Mun-ho his actions have a meaning all their own that stands apart from his professed intentions. He certainly doesn’t seem as tiresomely petty or complacent as his friend, though: There’s a moment in a cab when Hyeon-gon asks his buddy what he wants more than anything else in life, and Mun-ho looks dreamily out the window and says, “Tenure.”
Some people have contrasted Woman against Neil LaBute’s recent war-of-the-sexes films like In the Company of Men. They’re superficially comparable, but I think Hong is both a better filmmaker and a wiser one. He doesn’t see men as being inherent pigs, just ignorant of what they can do if they aren’t careful; his view is more sad and commonplace than brutal or vile. The last scenes in the movie concentrate on Mun-ho and a sad, furtive dalliance he has with one of his students. We have suspected all along that Mun-ho is a hypocrite and a coward, but now Mun-ho himself realizes it, much to his own dismay.
One comment I make about Korean movies is that they often embody some kind of sociological commentary about South Korean society in general. It’s not hard to see why this might be the case. Only recently did anything like true political or artistic freedom come to that country, and so now all the demons are tumbling out of the closet, including a good deal of the self-loathing that any repressed culture never talks about. “What culture?” Mun-ho scoffs at one point. “All Koreans think about is sex.” He has no idea how brutally he will end up embodying that very statement. There is also the chance that he was thinking of himself when he said it, which is even funnier, and, yes, sadder.
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