In Another Country (Da-reun na-ra-e-suh)

Korea (2012) Dir. Hong Sang-soo 

A young film student Won-Ju (Jung Yu-Mi) is hiding from debt collectors at small seaside guest house with her mother Park Sook (Yoon Yeo-jeong). Fed up she starts to write a script, set in the very same guest house featuring a French woman (Isabelle Huppert) visiting Korea alone.

Sang-soo Hong is the master of the minimalist, wry, realistic dramas which usually cover the themes of relationships, infidelity and alcoholism, with this film being no different. What is different is the choice of leading lady, none other than French legend Isabelle Huppert. The deal came about when Huppert was in Korea promoting a film and her art exhibition and she met up with some of Korea’s top directors for a friendly drink – including Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and of course, Sang-soo Hong. The latter made a drunken offer to make a film with Huppert accepted in the same manner, which brings us to this unique curiosity.

Split into three parts, Huppert plays Anna, a lone French woman in Korea but under different circumstances in each scene albeit featuring recurring incidents and characters. In the first scenario, Anna is a famous film director in Korea to meet fellow film director Jong-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and his heavily pregnant and easy jealous wife Geum-hee (Moon So-ri). During her stay at the guest house, of which one of the staff members is played by Jung Yu-Mi, Anna goes for a walk to look for a lighthouse nearby, meeting along a way nice but dim lifeguard (Yu Jun-sang) who takes a shine to Anna, and the feeling may be mutual.

In the second scene Anna is the wife of a French motor-executive who is in Korea to meet her Korean lover, filmmaker Moon-soo (Moon Sung-keun). Ashe is pre-occupied by work Ana goes for a wander to the beach where she meets the lifeguard. Finally, Anna is a divorced woman accompanied by her lecturer friend Park Soon (Yoon Yeo-jeong) to seek some peace and quiet who finds herself in the company of, you guessed it, a hunky lifeguard.

This may sound like Groundhog Day revisited but Hong’s riffing on the recurring story motif makes this a fresh outing although the repetition of the material might wear thin for some viewers. The magic is how these moments re-appear but within enough a fresh, if subtle spin to elicit a knowing smile form the viewer. Aside from pregnant Geum-hee in her billowing yellow top and grey sweatpants and the lifeguard, the outfits change in each scene to make it clear we are in different reality although the characters – but not Anna – remain unchanged.

In the first two scenes Anna is the instigator of the adulterous behaviour while in the third she is the victim, as her husband had left her for a younger Korean secretary. In keeping with the low key tone of the film, there is no hanky panky or passionate clinches behind anyone’s back, it’s all through dialogue and body language that the affairs – as such as they are – unfold.

Isabelle Huppert was an inspired if provident choice of star, happily throwing herself into everything that Hong asks of her. The semi-improvised style and bare bones script proves to be less of a challenge for the French legend, giving off the vibe of someone trying on a new pair of shoes and finding them as comfortable as a familiar old pair. Her Korean co-stars speak to her in English and to each other in their native tongue, the broken “Engrish” of the former providing some cute but inadvertent light relief as it often does when those Johnny Foreigners trip over of beautiful language.

Much of Hong’s key filming techniques return here – the single camera, wide shots into sudden zooms – and while they remain unique to him, they are becoming a little too repetitive and almost hackneyed. It might be worth Hong looking to move into more conventional ways of filming with multi-angles, tracking or dolly shots and the like, which, if down right, will never comprise the intimacy of his naturalistic style and narrative.

In Another Country has the misfortune to be dismissed as the “same old” Hong, compounded by the recurring premise of the story, but the gamble of bringing in a fresh external element like Isabelle Huppert pays dividends. One of the more interesting and bolder of the low key releases of the year.