Combustible Celluloid
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With: Isabelle Huppert, Yoo Jun-sang, Kwon Hae-hyo, Moon So-ri, Moon Sung-keun, Jung Yoo-mi, Yoon Yeo-jeong
Written by: Hong Sang-soo
Directed by: Hong Sang-soo
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Korean and English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 89
Date: 21/05/2012

In Another Country (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Foreigner Affairs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In Another Country is the English-language debut of the celebrated South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo (Woman Is the Future of Man). This is not to say he's directing the latest action sequel in Hollywood. Rather, he uses English as the common language between a French tourist (Isabelle Huppert) and her hosts in a South Korean seaside town. (Much of the film is also spoken in Korean, with English subtitles.)

Huppert plays not one but three French tourists: a famous film director, a cheating wife meeting her lover, and a divorced wife looking for some R&R. The movie is divided into three segments, and the same characters turn up again and again, re-enacting some of the same events, sometimes with slightly different results. The entire thing springs from the mind of a young woman writing a story while staying in the same seaside town.

Viewers may be confused at first, especially when Huppert turns up for the second time and no one recognizes her, but the rhythms soon click into place. Hong uses his very deadpan, matter-of-fact approach, as well as the awkward exchanges in English, for some winning existential humor. In each segment, the French lady goes looking for a lighthouse, mainly just to kill time. She asks a goofy lifeguard (Yoo Jun-sang, whose king-sized performance recalls Roberto Benigni) where it might be. The results range from very little to a great deal.

She also shares some sexual tension with a man, another filmmaker (Kwon Hae-hyo), who has a pregnant wife (Moon So-ri). It's interesting to see how subtle interactions can change ever so slightly, almost like alternate realities trailing off into more alternate realities. Hong saves his best joke for last, the sly use of a certain prop to tie together the various realities, suggesting that they're not so different after all, and that choices cannot altogether change feelings.

I have seen a handful of Hong's earlier movies (The Power of Kangwon Province, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, etc.), but I never wrote reviews of most of them. I find that they disappear from the memory fairly quickly, like dreams. I wonder how this, a more international production -- with distribution in America, a rarity for Hong -- will play for newcomers to his work? Certainly it will seem awkward at first, but if sturdy viewers persevere, they might find that In Another Country is the kind of thoughtful, warmly amusing comedy that's usually missing from the cinema landscape.

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