In Another Country (2012)
As regular as returning film festivals is the output of Hong Sang-soo, the hugely prolific South Korean writer-director. “In Another Country” conforms closely to his previous efforts, so familiar viewers will know what to expect; but the added difference this time is the presence of a major Western star in the cast, Isabelle Huppert, which may bump the film’s profile a little.
Mr. Hong presents us with three different tales about a French lady visiting Korea (all obviously played by Ms. Huppert), each of which is similar to the others but plays out out slightly differently and all of them bookended by the framing device of a young woman (Jung Yoo-mi) who’s writing the stories we watch. In each story Mr. Huppert’s character has a flirtatious relationship with the local lifeguard (Yoo Jun-sang) in a sleepy Korean seaside town, but her (and other characters’) infidelity becomes more pronounced with each tale.
In the first installment her mere presence causes jealous friction with her Korean host’s (Kwon Hae-hyo) wife (Moon So–ri), so much so that she becomes embarrassed by her earlier flirting with the lifeguard and pretends not to know him. In the second story her (slightly different) character is visiting the resort to have an affair with a Korean man (Moon Sung-keun), but after they argue she has an amorous exchange with the lifeguard, but it only serves to provoke her rapprochement with the boyfriend. The final chapter has her holidaying with a friend (Mr. Yoon) because she’s been the victim of infidelity herself, but she ends up getting drunk and causing numerous embarrassments. Finally she responds to the lifeguard’s advances and her liberation seems to release us from the story cycle.
Mr. Hong has previously structured films with more than one self-referencing story (“Tale of Cinema”), but this time the structure is more intricate. Characters play slightly different versions of themselves in subtly variant stories while an unseen author shapes these mildly revised worlds. It’s a conceit that’s been used in metafictional Hollywood comedies such as “Melinda and Melinda” and “Stranger Than Fiction” and isn’t far from the postmodern musings that epitomize the Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman set. A precedent that’s closer to (Mr. Hong’s) home would be Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Syndromes and a Century” in the way specific scenes are repeated with almost indiscernible alterations to the dialogue. But unlike all these examples, Mr. Hong isn’t trying to wow us with the intricate interconnectedness of various stories, or prompt us into speculative analysis of the thematic significance of minute variations. He’s just having fun and experimenting, like the girl who’s writing the script that we’re watching, and suggesting how themes and character can develop and improve during the creative process.
The ultimately playful and unpretentious tone is what gives the film its charm. Ms. Huppert has probably never been so breezy and improvisational; at least not in the last decade or so that’s she’s been the in-demand actress to add angst-ridden weight to the work of earnest European auteurs. As such she feels like an actress on holiday in South Korea, in parallel with her character. The humor derived from her interplay with the lifeguard, and other characters, is mostly drawn from the lost-in-translation school, reminiscent of the communication problems Jim Jarmusch loved to portray with his cosmopolitan casts (“Down By Law,” “Night On Earth” etc).
It’s essentially a rather lightweight approach to comedy and some audiences may have more tolerance for it than others. Similarly some regular Mr. Hong watchers may also be starting to lose patience with a director who seems happy to tread over reasonably similar ground film after film, year after year. But few do these kinds of airy yet clever relationship dramas with such accessibility and honesty as Mr. Hong, and “In Another Country” is yet another inarguably pleasant diversion.
IN ANOTHER COUNTRY
Opens on Nov. 9 in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo; directors of photography, Park Hongyeol and Jee Yunejeong; edited by Hahm Sungwon; music by Jeong Yongjin; produced by Kim Kyounghee; released by Kino Lorber. In Korean and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A.
WITH: Isabelle Huppert (Anne), Yu Junsang (Lifeguard), Jung Yumi (Wonju), Youn Yuhjang (Park Sook), Kwon Hyehyo (Jongsoo), Moon Sungkeun (Moonsoo) and Moon Sori (Kumhee).