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Two arthouse “worlds” collide with amusing and intriguing — if hardly earth-shattering — results in cult Korean writer-director Hong Sangsoo‘s In Another Country, a brisk trio of larkish tales each starring Isabelle Huppert as a French woman visiting a small coastal resort. Obvious catnip for both sets of fan-bases, it may give many Huppert admirers their first sampling of Asian auteur cinema and thus provide Hong — whose dozen previous features have sparked much critical fervor — with his biggest international box-office exposure to date.
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But while there’ll be no shortage of festival takers for an accessibly comic picture of such pedigree world-premiering in Cannes competition, it is – for all its charms, and despite Hong’s trademark formal experimentation — ultimately rather lightweight stuff. In terms of arthouse “marquee” appeal, Hong will likely remain a coterie interest for the time being in comparison to his better-known compatriots Park Chanwook and Bong Joonho.
As usual with Hong, In Another Country (Da-reun na-ra-e-suh) plays games with structure and operates on a stories-within-a-story format. Here the three episodes are the results of three scripts – or maybe they’re one single script – penned as a pastime by a bored young film-student Wonju (Jung Yumi) who has travelled to seaside backwater Mohang with her mother (Youn Yuhjung) to evade debt-collectors. Whatever faults we may find in the resulting vignettes can thus be deflected onto the inexperienced Wonju rather than the veteran Hong — whose underlying impetus here, as elsewhere, is to examine and celebrate the vagaries of the creative process.
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In each case, Wonju’s protagonist is a “charming French visitor” named Anne: in the first section, she’s a famous film-director (who may or may not be based on Claire Denis); in the second, she’s the wife of a motor-executive who arrives in Mohang for a tryst with her film-director boyfriend; in the third, she’s a wealthy housewife recently divorced from her unfaithful husband. As each “Anne” interacts with the locals — including Wonju, who works at Anne’s lodging and helps show her around — certain faces, situations and lines of dialogue recur, their effect and implications changing depending on context and delivery.
Issues of infidelity are present in each story — as is the live-wire chap identified only as the Lifeguard (Yu Junsang) — who meets Anne on the beach in each of her “incarnations.” These scenes involving Huppert and Yu — a TV star who’s has appeared in each of the increasingly prolific Hong’s recent features Like You Know It All (2009), Hahaha (2010) and The Day He Arrives (2011), are the comic highlights of In Another Country — wittily crystallizing the language and cultural barriers which complicate each Anne’s stay in Mohang.
And while Huppert finds plenty of shading in the functionally-sketched Annes, it’s Yu who steals the picture with his bouncy physical presence and puppyishly eager-to-please directess. The sequence in which he haltingly improvises a guitar serenade to Anne while the pair sit in his tent, with the camera keeping a discreet distance, displays Hong’s comic gifts at their most hysterical. But the interactions between Anne(s) and the Lifeguard also have a poignant romantic angle — some force of destiny (i.e. “scriptwriter” Wonju) brings them together, only to add complications before a satisfying and pleasingly daft finale.
How much this all adds up to is a matter for each viewer to decide. Hong slyly provides enough structural intricacy and interconnectedness to keep semiologists and deconstructionists in business for weeks, while more general audiences may be happy to enjoy the picture’s more straightforward pleasures. Shot on 35mm, it has a likeably freewheeling, thrown-together, lo-fi feel – even the opening titles are written in biro – with a zoom-happy camera that often seems powered, like Anne’s happy-go-lucky lifeguard, by sheer joie de vivre.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition), May 20, 2012.
Production company: Jeonwonsa
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Yu Junsang, Jung Yumi, Kwon Hyehyo, Youn Yuhjung, Moon Sori, Moon Sungkeun
Director / Screenwriter: Hong Sangsoo
Producer: Kim Kyounghee
Director of photography: Park Hongyeol, Jee Yunejeong
Music: Jeong Yongjin
Editor: Hahm Sungwon
Sales Agent: Finecut, Seoul
No rating, 89 minutes.
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