Beguilingly simple, relaxed in its mastery and enhanced by Isabelle Huppert’s impeccable poise, helmer-writer Hong Sang-soo’s ambivalently titled “In Another Country” plays like the flipside of his Paris-set “Night and Day.” While that 2008 film satirized Koreans’ antics abroad, the new pic makes Huppert’s “otherness” a dramatic lodestone, observing not only how Koreans treat foreigners, but also how they behave toward each other in the company of strangers; their amusingly awkward interactions constitute a deeper reflection on the concept of give-and-take in love and life. With a big marquee name, pic should travel farther afield than Hong’s usual Gallic arthouse niche.
As strictly symmetrical as all Hong’s works, “In Another Country” adopts a triptych structure in which Huppert plays three different French women, all named Anne, who make a brief stopover at the West Blue Hotel in the seaside town of Mohang. The meta-fictional premise is that the three stories rep different versions of a script written by film student Wonju (Jung Yu-mi) as an exercise in stress management.
In the first episode, Anne is a filmmaker invited to join her director friend Jongsoo (Kwon Hye-ho) and his heavily pregnant wife, Kumhee (Moon So-ri), for a holiday in Mohang. Jongsoo reminds Anne of a kiss they shared in Berlin, interpreting it as a sign of greater intimacy to come.
The second episode sees Anne arrive alone as the wife of a rich businessman, summoned to Mohang for a tryst by Korean filmmaker b.f. Munsoo (Moon Sung-keun). During the short time he spends with her, Munsoo is paranoid about getting spotted for his indiscretions, and eventually ticks Anne off with his groundless jealousy.
In the third episode, Anne turns up as a recent divorcee whose marriage was ruined by her husband’s affair with his Korean employee. She is accompanied by Park Sook (Youn Yuh-jung), a professor. At Anne’s request for enlightenment, Park introduces her to a monk, whose cryptic sayings only confuse her more.
As in most of Hong’s films, different characters (played by the same few thesps) re-enact similar scenes and reiterate the same lines of dialogue. Here, however, they succeed in gathering comic momentum rather than becoming tedious, overly self-referential or formally too complex. The use of repetition as a device wryly echoes the generic small-talk that Koreans and other Asians tend to make in uncomfortable social situations.
The awkwardness of the pic’s cross-cultural exchanges is heightened by the fact that the characters largely speak English, which is not anyone’s native tongue here; Hong displays a sharp ear for their clumsy speech patterns as they try to tell each other what they think they want to hear. The Korean characters’ over-eager gestures of hospitality in particular reveal how a social landscape changes in response to a foreigner’s presence. Not only is Anne literally in another country, but Korea shapes itself into another country for her benefit. In the most hilarious examples of this phenomenon, Anne keeps running into the same beefy lifeguard (Yu Jun-sang), who invites her into his tent and makes gauche advances.
Content-wise, “In Another Country” may be the tamest film in Hong’s body of work. Drunkenness takes place offscreen and there is not a single instance of sexual activity; one morning-after scene comes close, but remains ambiguous. The only displays of erotic passion come in the form of fantasy sequences that send up Korean preconceptions of French romance, confirming that the foreign woman is an unattainable and obscure object of desire.
Hong’s characteristic preference for medium shots and unnaturally abrupt zooms, tilts and cutaways further creates distance between his subjects. By the final segment, there’s a sense that each Anne is a rather lonely person, and the fact that she’s in a strange land is perhaps a metaphor for alienation of an existential nature, implied by her boredom, her search for an elusive lighthouse, and the way she finds herself constantly waiting, like a character in a Beckett play.
With everything revolving around her, Huppert maintains a coherent identity while calibrating a range of feelings expressed by her three different personas, all of whom cut striking figures wearing blue, red and green, respectively. The rest of the cast, most of them Hong regulars, provide solid supporting turns.
Sunnier lighting and Park Hong-yeol’s lensing yield a more vibrant color palette than in most of Hong’s recent works, making Mohang, with its extensive greenery and long coastline, appear less drab than the director’s typical seaside mise-en-scene. Modest, low-budget tech credits match the humble location.