One of the foremost directors of the Korean New Wave, Hong Sang-soo makes his English-language debut with a film starring no native English speakers. Yet what on the surface may seem like an unnecessary quirk plays perfectly into Hong’s pet themes of infidelity, miscommunication, disconnection. and, more recently, the effects of social and geographical displacement. In Another Country sees Hong taking his typically self-reflexive approach (nearly all of his films feature at least one filmmaker or artist character) to the next level, framing the film’s triptych within an additional fictional perspective. A Korean author whose husband cheated on her with a French woman plays the writer of the three separate stories, each of which features a French woman played with typically adept precision and subtlety by the inimitable Isabelle Huppert, visiting a Korean beach house either to meet with a lover or to escape after discovering her husband has been unfaithful to her. As usual for a Hong film, In Another Country’s structure — replete with narrative repetitions, visual motifs, synchronicity, and playful variances — rather than its visuals or dialogue, is where the keys to its thematic depths lie.
In each of the three stories, Huppert’s character is named Anne. In each, she encounters the same people and places. Yet each segment offers a series of both subtle and blatant variations — her lover in the first story is merely a neighbor in a later one, the lifeguard varies from flirtatious aside to full-on love interest and her hosts play different versions of an uncomfortable yet hospitable couple — that reflect the innate instability and unpredictability of Hong’s cinematic reality: minor shifts in perspectives, attitudes and mental states lead to wildly different and seemingly infinite experiences. These variations and repetitions have a musical quality about them, like jazz or minimal techno, in that they create a dialectic between the original sequences and the new within a rhythm predetermined by the film’s overarching structure. As one gets a sense of these rhythms (something that, as always, takes patience as the film unfolds to slowly reveal the powerful lyricism hidden within), the different Annes and her altered interactions and shifts in psychological states all form a poetic bond that transforms heavy artifice into a complex and heartfelt representation of the confusion, pain, and desperation that follows immense heartbreak. And fortunately, all this is done with the delightfully light-hearted comic touch — another one of the director’s trademarks.
In Another Country’s heightened artifice creates a fascinating tension between the film’s more naturalistic character developments and its overtly formal internal narrator who shapes the film’s world. This isn’t unusual for Hong’s work, but where many of his previous films have featured male director protagonists who could be viewed, at least to some degree, as stand-in’s for Hong himself, In Another Country uses its doubled female protagonist, the ubiquitous writer and her incarnations as Anne, to plumb female identity while also readily admitting Hong’s hesitance to claim authority on the matter. “If I were a female writer, here might be how I’d write about the feminine experience.” This results in a film that is as much about the male struggle to write about females as it about one female’s struggles.
In placing each variation of Anne’s story in a fiction-within-a-fiction, Hong also tackles the therapeutic value of art to its maker and its viewers — as well as its utility as a catalyst for exploring different perspectives that can be combined to paint a broader picture. For all the flack Hong gets from certain cinephile quarters for repeating himself, it’s ironic that few directors are as steadfast in opening up their films’ worlds to diverging points of view as Hong himself. His recent inclusion of foreigners’ experiences — a Korean in France in Night and Day and a French woman in Korea here — is further evidence of his adeptness at exploring multiple facets of the human experience. The continued presence of his pet themes throughout his ouevre simply offers the opportunity to apply them to an ever-wider range of characters. With In Another Country, Hong embraces the power of fiction both to reflect reality and to reflect upon itself, and, in doing so, once again shows why he’s one of the most important directors working today.