In Another Country: Starring Isabelle Huppert

By Patrick McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2012 (In Competition)–“In Another Country” is the deceptively wondrous new feature from the prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo. With his customary verve and relaxed style, he spins another variation of the tumult and ecstasy of the sexual roundelay, exploring romantic solitude and thwarted artistic connections.

Hong’s recurrent theme has been mapping the geography of desire through elegantly constructed and constantly circling structures. His previous titles, “A Tale of Cinema,” “Woman is the Future of Man,” are both evocative and allusive. The grace and beauty create peculiar and trenchant fault lines, the inevitable conflict developed out of the disconnect between what his characters long for and what’s realistically available.

Hong is the “most French” of the South Korean New Wave directors, as explicitly acknowledged in his Paris-set feature, “Night and Day.“ His movies are like Eric Rohmer’s series “Six Moral Tales” or “Comedies and Proverbs,” titles best appreciated as strands and riffs of a multi-volume work. The excitement emerges in the way Hong teases out connections, dovetailing concerns and thematically linked plots.

The new work, his 13th film, casts the incomparable actress Isabelle Huppert as a French woman in three screwball derived, comically inclined episodes, about longing and lust in the South Korean beach town of Mohang. Huppert’s character is named Anne in each of the stories.

From the hand painted opening credits to the droll prologue that frames the stories, Hong displays the light touch of a satirist who’s also a poet of loneliness and heartbreak.

His poignant and funny style is filled with observational grace and comic subtlety. The movies refract a typically privileged male perspective, but of late, like the final chapter of “Oki’s Movie,” or last year’s “The Day He Arrives,” Hong has colored that contentious perspective with a more open consciousness.

The director loves bifurcated stories, triptychs, and playful, unorthodox approaches, like using the same actor in different parts. “In Another Country” unfolds like short fiction, three segments that function as the equivalent of chapters.

In the first part, Anne is a famous French director (clearly modeled on Huppert’s frequent collaborator, Claire Denis), who turns up in the seaside community to rendezvous with her friend, a Korean director Jongsoo (Kwon Hyehyo) and his pregnant wife (Moon Sori).

In the second part, Huppert plays the wife of a Korean auto executive, engage din a low-key affair with a Korean director named Munsoo (Moon Sungkeun).

In the third episode, she’s a woman dealing with the painful aftermath of her husband’s cruel rejection in favor of a younger Korean woman. She seeks solace and comfort with a friend who specializes in folklore.

Yu Junsang is the movie’s other connective thread, appearing in each of the episodes as a persistent and comically befuddled lifeguard who upends each tale with his sidelong glances and imperturbable nature. His scenes with Huppert are alternately funny, tender and beautifully restrained.

Most of the movie is in English, and though the actors, including Huppert, are not always expressive and intuitive in their readings, the tortured syntactical constructions and inelegant speech arrangements produce a series of awkward and charged encounters, like Jongsoo’s unrequited crush on Anne, or Munsoo’s angry bouts of jealousy.

Like a silent film, the expressiveness develops out of the tightness of their bodies, the forced smiles, arms akimbo, as the various men invariably find themselves trying to pull Anne toward them.

In a Hong movie, sex is an act of self-negation, pirouetting on themes of social recoil and public humiliation. As the title suggests, the action and ideas are more than a place; they’re a state of mind. Huppert’s Anne is the wild card, a pure emblem of unconstrained French sexual mores.

Working with two cinematographers, Park Hongyeal and Jee Yungejeong, Hong creates a series of poetic and spellbinding images, using his liquid style to draw out the striking contrasts of water and air, exteriors and interiors. Each episode is sustained by the images of freedom and desire, like two women unfurling their umbrellas, or Anne pensively walking barefoot in the shallow water on the beach.

Whether wearing the red summer print dress in the second episode, or a green number in the concluding chapter, Huppert is always exciting to watch. Hong gives her tremendous latitude and she responds, demonstrating acute comic timing and also sly self-awareness confronting her own screen persona.

The movie runs 89 minutes, and it is a quieter, more modest undertaking than Hong’s greatest works. Hong has not confronted himself or tried to take his art into new directions. The new movie is closer to a novella–small and precise–filled with wistful moments that catch you off-guard, smiling at the quiet moments of recognition.