Under what circumstances is it appropriate to drunkenly beg a blow job from an ex- girlfriend just after she’s slept with an old college buddy who’s snoring in the next room? And, now being a college teacher yourself, is there any reason to not make the same request of one of your young students while on a weekend bender? Clearly, modern sexual etiquette is no simpler in Seoul than in Seattle. “Koreans are too interested in sex,” says the married professor, Mun-ho (Yoo Ji-tae), over a desultory drinking bout with his pal, Hun-jun (Kim Tae-woo), a wanna-be filmmaker just returned from years of study in America. Before Hun-jun left, he told his girlfriend to wait for him. Apparently Seon-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah) did—until she realized the rat bastard weakling wasn’t coming back. Her broken heart gave low-down opportunist Mun-ho an opening, which he exploited. By the time the two men later reconnect, like dimwit Asian cousins to the cads in Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, dispirited college dropout Seon-hwa is working as a hotel bar girl. Nice work, fellas.
Still, Seon-hwa doesn’t exactly come across as a victim. In Woman‘s rather jarring initial flashback structure, we learn she was raped in college while dating Hun-jun, who found it something of a turn-on. And while Mun-ho’s an oaf who can’t keep his hands out of her pants, she dates him willingly. The sexual politics are treated with all the awkwardness, boredom, and maddening gaps in understanding that any veteran of any relationship anywhere will recognize. You never really come to terms with a past relationship, any more than you come to terms with the past. Writer-director Hong Sang-soo titillated SIFF ’01 audiences with the frank deflowering of Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, also told quite indirectly. Here, there’s no such direct goal to motivate viewers. Hun-jun kinda wants to apologize (but mainly he drinks); Mun-ho is kinda contented with wife, career, and child (but mainly he begs women to go down on him); and Seon-hwa is left as their enigmatic obsession—the signifier of their youthful (delusional) promise. Since their lives don’t measure up, they might as well make her feel shitty about her own.
Fortunately, Seon-hwa is made of sturdier stuff. And for Seattle women watching the movie, at least, they’ll have the satisfaction that none of their ex-boyfriends was as shitty as this pair.