Wednesday, August 22, 2012

KOFFIA 2012: In Another Country (다른 나라에서, Dareun Naraeseo) 2012

Part of MKC's coverage of the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia (previously published).

Quick disclaimer before barreling on with my discussion of Hong Sang-soo’s latest: This is the first film I’ve seen in a theater since my move to Korea and I saw it without subtitles and it must be said that my knowledge of Korean is fairly limited.  That said, over two thirds of In Another Country is in English and I was able to more or less follow the rest as well.  Undoubtedly there were some things I didn’t pick up on, so in the interest of full disclosure I thought I’d mention it.

Clearly, the most remarkable thing about Hong’s 13th feature is the presence of French screen legend Isabelle Huppert in the lead role.  This fact was picked up on by many global news outlets and gave the film some more recognition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, versus last year when Hong’s previous feature The Day He Arrives was screened.  It may also have been what landed it in the main competition.  However, while it was well received, it was left out during the closing night’s awards ceremony.

Having a notable French actress lead the proceedings does change things a bit, or at least at first.  The Korean characters, just as in any other Hong film, scissor their Korean barbeque and swill their soju, happy to share with Anne, Huppert’s character.  She appears to be fairly well traveled and never seems to be out of her depth: soon she just becomes part of the tapestry of Hong’s work. It wasn’t Huppert who needed to find her space within the film, it was I who needed to accustom myself to her, and that happened very quickly.

Three separate half hour stories make up In Another Country but they share so much in common that you might imagine yourself watching the same thing over and over again.  No surprise there as it has become abundantly clear that repetition and cyclicality form the corner stone of his oeuvre.  Anne (Huppert) is a middle-aged French woman in all three who comes to a seaside town in Korea, the characters she meets are all the same, an attractive lifeguard, a pregnant couple and the pleasant girl who runs her guesthouse.  Many of the scenes are almost repeated word for word and the themes that run though all three are perhaps even more similar than the narratives themselves.

After having had such a great time with The Day He Arrives, In Another Country is a bit of a downer.  It still has plenty of the comedy that has run through Hong’s features these past few years but the characters (save for the lifeguard, the guesthouse keeper and Ann’s guide in the 3rd story) seem markedly more miserable, they’re even a bit mean.  They have affairs, drink until they drop and say plenty of nasty things to each other.  In short, they’re not the kind of people I would choose to spend my time with.  However, seeing them on screen is a different story, as the correlations between their individual psyches and egos is fascinating.  The actors are all magnificent, Huppert does a great job but despite her imposing presence she does not steal the show.  If anyone does it was Yoo Joon-sang as the amiable lifeguard, though Yoon Yeo-jong, Moon Seong-geun and Kwon Hae-hyo are all excellent.

Once again, Hong shows us that we are destined to make the same mistakes over and over again.  The three stories seem to occur in alternate dimensions but the characters are the same.  That is to say that Anne, as well as the other protagonists, all started as the same person but despite all having lived through different circumstances and experiences, they are destined to repeat their errors for all eternity.

Is it possible for characters to change in Hong’s films?  I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen that.  Some grow up a little after transitioning from college to adulthood but their drawbacks, while more controlled, only seem amplified.  Watching In Another Country it was clear that none of these characters would change.  They’re not doomed exactly, but they will keep suffering the consequences of their shortfalls.  You can sense that loneliness and alienation are just an intrinsic part of their lives.

I found myself enjoying the film more and more as it unspooled before me and by the end I could not help but once again marvel at the deft skill of Hong’s evolving craft.  He is only getting more concrete with his technique and as slice-of-life as his films can seem, he actually applies laser-like precision to his work.  I won’t say it’s his best and it is probably one of the more depressing works in his filmography but he has indeed done it again and once more I await my next Hong Sang-soo fix with bated breath.


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