Do you know Hong Sang-soo? So asks the heroine of Miss Ex (비치온더비치, Bitch on the Beach) as part of her nefarious mission to win back her childhood sweetheart. Unfortunately, his reply is to ask if he directed The Host, so Ga-young (Jeong Ga-young) is out of luck with her Dark Knight loving former love, but possibly in luck with us as her movie obsessed ramblings and strange stories about accidental AIDS tests during wisdom tooth extractions continue to dominate the screen for the next 90 minutes. Divided into three chapters and filmed in an oddly colourful black and white, director and leading actress’ Jeong Ga-young’s debut feature channels Hong Sang-soo by way of Woody Allen and the French New Wave but may prove funnier than all three put together.
Drunken Ga-young has invited herself over to her ex’s flat with the express intention of seducing him. Jeong-hoon (Kim-Choi Yong-joon) is sort of fed up with this kind of thing, in fact he has Ga-young listed in his phone under the name “do not answer” but she manages to bamboozle him into opening the door anyway. Ga-young has quit her job to pursue a career in the movies, though it seems she’s not having much success. Jeong-hoon knows she only calls him for a shoulder to cry on when she’s fed up but falls for it anyway. He has a girlfriend and makes it clear he’s not up for any funny business, but Ga-young is quite determined – only time will tell if Ga-young will get what she came for, or if she even really even knows what that is.
Miss Ex was originally titled “Bitch on the Beach” in Korean which, seeing as there are no beaches in this film, seems to be an obvious reference to the Hong Sang-soo movie Woman on the Beach – a similarly reflexive exercise about a film director and his relationships with a number of women who only really become fodder for his screenplay. Filming in black and white with simple, static camera set ups and concentrating on the amusing banter between its two leading characters credited only as “woman” and “man”, Hong’s influence is palpable. Ga-young is, however, a true cinephile who, after finding time to express her boredom with The Dark Knight, goes on to detail her strange dreams about other famous directors such as Bong Joon-ho (who really did direct The Host) and arguably Korea’s greatest living filmmaker Lee Chang-dong whom she asks to be her assistant director(!).
It’s fair to say the banter is more or less one sided as Jeong-hoon is forced to listen to Ga-young’s increasingly bizarre stories. Surprisingly frank and forthright in talking to her ex-boyfriend, Ga-young proceeds to tell him about various other men in her life, her sexual desires and preferences, and even those of her friends. Jeong-hoon listens patiently with occasional bemusement, but their relationship is close enough to be totally open without causing too much of a problem. Despite his protestations it’s clear Jeong-hoon is still on the hook for Ga-young, which she clearly knows, but it’s a little less clear whether she’s just keeping him there for convenience’s sake or is actively trying to win him back.
Even if Hong Sang-soo is the obvious reference point, he is after all referenced in the text, Miss Ex also owes a debt to the breeziness of the French New Wave and its freewheeling absurdity. Cutting between amusing silliness and understated emotional drama Miss Ex is perfectly posed to examine the various trials and tribulations of romance among contemporary young people. Ga-young is, perhaps, too modern for the slightly more conservative Jeong-hoon who tells her that her problems with men mostly stem from being too quick to take the lead and also constantly picks her up on her “unladylike” colourful language. One gets the impression Ga-young might not be very good for Jeong-hoon who eventually jeopardises his relationship with his current girlfriend to keep her happy, but whatever anyone else thinks about it, it seems as if he won’t be giving up on her any time soon. Cute, quirky and extremely smart, Miss Ex is an accomplished debut from director and leading lady Jeong Ga-young who marks herself out as an interesting new indie voice in Korean cinema.
Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)