Saturday January 12, 2013

Like many other films by the sly and prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, "In Another Country" is at once a comedy of manners and an oblique commentary on the power of cinema to expose and alter reality. Its three chapters, each a little under a half-hour long, are scenarios dreamed up by an aspiring young screenwriter (Jung Yumi) in the midst of some vague family trouble. The movies she writes, which we see enacted on the screen (with Jung as a helpful neighbor), are variations on some of Hong's favorite themes: social awkwardness, sexual frustration and the selfishness of Korean men.

In each vignette Isabelle Huppert plays a Frenchwoman named Anne, who finds herself the only foreigner in an overcast beach town. Whether she is a filmmaker, the lover of a filmmaker (Moon Sungkeun) or a newly divorced spiritual seeker, she finds herself entangled in an odd group dynamic made more so by her cultural and linguistic estrangement. Whatever the situation, she attracts the clumsy, infatuated attention of a lifeguard (Yu Junsang), with whom she communicates in halting, half-shouted English.

Other recurring characters include a pregnant woman (Moon Sori) and her husband (Kwon Hyehyo), whose relationship is unsettled by Anne's presence. Anne is not precisely the same person each time. Her clothes and hair are a bit different, as is her temperament: coy when she wears red, reckless and abrasive in green.


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The others are sometimes rude, sometimes solicitous, and variously puzzled, exasperated and charmed by her presence.

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Which might sum up the experience of this movie, which is never less than moderately interesting but only intermittently more. Hong's playful formal ingenuity is evident in the way certain shots, scenes and events are repeated with small but significant alterations. He -- or his alter ego, the fledgling writer -- is pleased to show us how much he can do with a strictly limited set of elements. We notice patterns and motifs without worrying too much about the structure that governs them. Our job is not to interpret things like the repeated theft or borrowing of an umbrella, or the way certain scenes echo one another, but rather to notice that these things are there.

This sense of artifice, and Hong's fondness for sudden pans and zooms that call attention to the presence of his camera, contrasts with the ordinariness of the setting and the unaffected naturalism of the performances. He is interested neither in conventional realism -- he drifts further away from it with each film -- nor in equally conventional displays of self-consciousness, but rather in staging collisions between those two styles.

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A movie may be a representation of the world, but it is also something that happens in the world, which means that sustaining a cinematic illusion and breaking it are equally beside the point.

What the point here might be is a bit more elusive. It may be simply to allow Huppert, one of the most adventurous actresses in movies, the opportunity to try something new. And that might be enough.