What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Hong Sang-soo
Produced by: Kim Kyoung Hee
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kwon Hae-hyo, Jung Yu-Mi, Moon So-ri, Moon Sung-keun, Yu Jun-sang, Yoon Yeo-jeong
Language: Korean w/English subtitles, English, French w/English subtitles
Running Time (in min.): 89 minutes
Selection of 35th Mill Valley Film Festival, 2012
In Another Country (Da-reun na-ra-e-suh) (2012)
The influx of impressive new (South) Korean films into the world sphere gains another point with In Another Country, a competitor for the 2012 Palme D’Or and selection of the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival. Written and directed with a strong hand by Hong Sang-soo (or Sang-soo Hong, depending on where this review is being read), Country marks a return to form that brought him international acclaim on 2008’s Night and Day and 2010’s award-winner, Hahaha.
Yet his latest film has an asset that is bound to bring him not only further acclaim, but also notoriety and notice without which the picture would not receive its just desserts: Isabelle Huppert (Amour, The Piano Teacher). Reportedly asked to participate in a new a movie during a social dinner, Huppert’s renowned screen presence elevates what feels in scale and style to be an intimate, sprightly film but is actually an admirable, controlled exercise in metaphor. Huppert, like her countryman Denis Lavant in Mill Valley selection Holy Motors, plays multiple characters here, each with a different agenda and self-concept.
The writer-director uses a triptych structure to create a sense of the Southern coastal town of Mohang, where the only attractions are a local lighthouse and a handsome but goofy lifeguard (Yu Jun-sang, Sang-soo’s frequent collaborator). In each, Huppert plays a French woman whose wealth and boredom have brought her Mohang, in search of…something. She is first a famous director scouting for locations and escaping worshiping peons; she is then, alternately, the lover of a famous but sensitive Korean filmmaker, and finally a miserable recent divorcee.
Those familiar with Huppert’s career recognize a play on her typecasting here. She has specialized over the years in roles charged with authority and sexuality, using her ethereal presence as an asset and weapon. The lifeguard in Mohang, along with her director-lover in the second segment and several Korean women she encounters, all mention her grace and beauty several times in each piece. What Sang-soo and Huppert seem to be after is an inversion of type, taking our expectations of Huppert’s cougar-like, opportunistic characters and flipping them to generate great humor.
This plan works, and takes Country one step forward into a self-reflexive comment on the director-actor dichotomy inherent in every feature film being made. Sang-soo does not operate three totally different stories, but rather orbits the same concepts with a different base structure. In a way, the film resembles a cross between Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, which retained the same plot structure and actors but changed the tone from drama to comedy, and the movies under the Dogme 95 movement. Like a symphony changing keys but retaining the same melody, the writer-director here pulls and pushes at Huppert’s famous screen image without exchanging more than a few story elements.
And Huppert is nothing but game, giving a calm, subtle performance that anchors the three mini-features. As “Anne” (the shared name of each character) she buries culture shock and boredom so deeply as to seem apathetic to the good-natured townspeople trying to help her. Anne condescends to her landlord, the waif-like Won-ju (sweet Jung Yu-Mi), who is so in awe of her up-turned nose that she always seems to be waiting on the periphery for a conversation. In her quaint floral dresses and expensive jewelry, she looks as alien in Mohang as an actual extraterrestrial might, though the men cannot help but flirt with her.
What Sang-soo elicits from Huppert is a star turn that enriches Country to the level of a major work. That the film is South Korean is important not just to the picture – which is likely to find its highest appreciation in French and Korean filmgoers – but also to those looking outside the filmic text.
The world’s cache of film has been greatly bolstered in the last few years by new Korean artists, not only the multihyphenate Sang-soo but also Park Chan-wook (2009’s Mother) and Bong Joon-ho (2003’s Oldboy), to name a few. That this generation of filmmakers is creating exemplary work in the same period is not a coincidence; it speaks to the artistic power of one specific society, growing in scope and majesty as France during the Nouvelle Vague and even New York-born Americans in the 1970s. The new Korean cinema is in full stride with In Another Country, and that is just grand.