Though he’s hardly a household name, even among art-film cognoscenti, South Korean director Hong Sang-Soo has earned a small but devoted following among moviegoers drawn to his knowing, soju-scented musings on the awkward (and often humiliating) courtship rituals between emotionally immature men and the women who don’t so much love as tolerate them. Hong’s seventh and latest feature, Woman on the Beach (2006), may also be his most accessible, in that it is his warmest and most linear (minus the sometimes-confusing flashback schemes of his earlier films). Set in a Korean beach town during off-season, it is about a Hong-like film director, his flunky assistant, the beautiful woman (the extraordinary Ko Hyeon-Gang) who comes between them, and a second woman (Song Seon-Mi) who resembles the first in a way that proves fatally tempting. For his brainy, wordy exchanges on love and lust, and for the uncluttered elegance of his camera style, Hong has frequently earned comparisons to the French director Eric Rohmer. But so sharp are Hong’s insights into the age-old battle of the sexes that it’s a disservice to compare him to anyone. In Woman on the Beach, he builds to a scene that is almost impossible to describe, in which the Hong surrogate’s highly creative approach to wriggling out of an argument (by way of a hand-drawn illustration) also serves as a dazzlingly astute reading of male-female relationships. And like nearly everything else in a Hong film, it feels private and lived in. Hong, who titled one of his previous features Woman Is the Future of Man, isn’t exactly a feminist, but his love, awe and exaltation of the fairer sex are rare at the movies (especially those directed by men) these days. Back when Rohmer and Truffaut and Paul Mazursky commanded an audience that seemed to crave sophisticated adult-relationship comedies, Hong might have been a phenomenon. Today, when Sex and the City is what passes for sophistication, he is a marginal figure, but an important one, ever firm in his belief that woman is indeed the future, and man is lagging very far behind. After screening to enormous acclaim at last year’s Toronto and New York film festivals and tying for second place in the Best Undistributed Films category of the Weekly’s recent film critics’ poll, Woman on the Beach receives its belated local premiere as part of a day-long retrospective of Hong’s work organized by the Korean Film Council and the USC School of Cinema-Television. The program also includes screenings of Hong’s earlier films Tale of Cinema (2005) and Turning Gate (2002), as well as a meet-and-greet with the director. All events are free and open to the public. Norris Theater, USC School of Cinema-Television; Sat., March 24, Turning Gate at 3 p.m.; Tale of Cinema at 6 p.m.; Woman on the Beach at 7:30 p.m.

LA Weekly