By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Up until now, it’s been safe to say that South Korean director Sang-soo Hong has had a knack for crisp photography, deftly-drawn interperonsal struggles, and strong characters. I think it’s also safe to say that he’s been making the same film over and over. The men lust after the women. The women remain distant and don’t change. The men lust and drink more, and they don’t change either.
“In Another Country,” Hong’s latest film released to this country, breaks from his patterns in two crucial areas. First off, he’s using a Western actress — widely acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert. And while his characters stay static, this time, he’s come up with a creative excuse.
The film opens with a daughter and mother, played by Yoo-mi Jung and Yeo-jeong Yoon, as they take a room at a seaside inn (a setting dear to Hong’s heart, seaside and beach living appear in many of his films). A family crisis that involves some sort of betrayal, but is never fully fleshed out, haunts them, and they are scared to go home.
The younger woman, a film student (filmmakers also often appear in Hong’s narratives), decides to get her mind off things by writing a story for a script.
The remainder of the film plays out as what the young woman first writes, then re-writes, forming three separate stories. The central characters always include an English-speaking French woman named Anne (played by Huppert). Another constant character includes an amorous lifeguard, played by Jun-sang Yoo.
Yoo in real life is an actor, singer, master of several musical instruments, and a faculty member at the Korea Art College. It’s a measure of his acting talents, then, that he seems so perfect as a fellow who’s earnest and physically strong, but a bit of a bumbler socially. Clearly smitten with Huppert’s character, Anne (in all three stories), he tries luring her inside his seaside tent as he strums a song for her. He sings powerfully, but the ease of the song indicates that he may have done this for more than one woman.
Hong always demonstrates a strong sense of individual style. His characters gather on the beach or around the bar drinking Korean soju. His characters drink to loosen their inhibitions, but they still have trouble saying what they mean to say, or even finding out within themselves what they actually mean.
Huppert, one of the most acclaimed working French actors, demonstrates restraint, mystery, and a winning smile, often all at once. Her character “Anne” (one of Huppert’s middle names, incidentally) always seems to be up for adventure. She slips inside the lifeguard’s tent with hardly a second thought. But she’s prone, in all three stories, to an inner guardedness, a reluctance to give away anything that truly matters.
The underlying structure of the film may seem affected or self-important, but thanks to the fascination of the characters, it never comes off as such. As characters, old and new, run over the same rough scenario again and again with important variations, we can see the screenwriter’s unseen hands working the dialogue, the settings, and the inner souls of the people she’s creating. She works them like a sculptor, looking for a satisfactory final form.
As for Hong, he seems to have finally broken his own mold. Here’s to his new territory. (end)
“In Another Country” plays Feb. 1st through Feb. 7th at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th Street in Seattle’s University District. For prices and showtimes, call 206.523.3935 or visit www.grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.