A beach-set comedic drama isn’t often what comes to mind when you think of South Korean cinema, but writer/director Hong Sang-soo has never been fond of convention. That’s especially apparent when it comes to his preference for nontraditional narrative structures. His films are often broken into sections or chapters with actors and themes recurring throughout to tell a singular or collective tale. His new film, In Another Country, follows this trend but adds a foreign face into the mix in the form of Isabelle Huppert.
Hanging out in a tiny seaside town on the west coast of Korea is no teenager’s idea of a good time, and when family strife pushes her indoors one young woman turns to the page to pass the time. She’s an aspiring writer who decides to craft three tales set in the very same village using the people around her as inspiration.
All three begin with the arrival of a French woman named Ann (Huppert) into this small town, but her identity, motivations and interactions differ from story to story. Also fluctuating are many of the identities of those she encounters. In one she’s a famous director on vacation with a fellow filmmaker and his pregnant wife, but complications ensue when the wife learns Ann and her husband once had a fling. The next sees her as a married woman arriving in town for an affair but foiled by her lover’s schedule. The last segment brings Ann to the village as a recent divorcee still mourning the loss of her marriage.
Despite the potentially heavy plot threads of infidelity and loss Hong’s latest rarely strays from its lightly amusing tone throughout all three segments. There’s little visual drama here as the film consists almost entirely of Ann walking and talking with the town’s citizens and other visitors. Much of the film’s (limited) humor comes from the awkwardness inherent in communicating in languages that aren’t your own. Ann is French in all three segments, but she and her Korean counterparts speak mostly English between them.
That language gap actually represents the film’s biggest issue. It’s meant as one of the recurring themes, the comical confusion and misinterpretations that arise from miscommunication, but it comes across as something less. Instead of characters struggling to communicate in a shared language it feels very much like actors trying to do the same. It sounds like they’re fumbling their way through memorized English lines which flattens and deflates the emotion and intent in their words.
The dueling tongues do offer some respite though as a few humorous moments slip by unscathed. More often than not they hit during Ann’s scenes with the jovial and possibly horny lifeguard (Yu Jun-sang) she encounters in all three incarnations. We first meet him exiting the ocean as she watches from shore, and between his inability to provide directions to a lighthouse and his later attempts at wooing her into his tent he presents himself as the sunniest part of this cloud-covered town and the film itself.
The narrative, fractured as it is, appears to be a commentary on the inevitability of our mistakes. Even as three different people Ann continues to fumble her way through life alongside others in similar straights. The larger errors of judgement take a back seat to erroneous attempts at simple communication, but the theme remains.
In Another Country has a limited charm that wears thin as characters repeat actions and dialogue, walk without ever reaching their destinations and conclude not only with no resolution but with no drama in need of one. It’s an interesting endeavor from the outside looking in, but in the world of the movie the only thing of real value is looking for the way out.
The Upside: Interesting premise; Yu Jun-sang is wonderfully charismatic
The Downside: The tales aren’t all that engaging individually or collectively; actors’ grasp of English results in performances filled with memorization
On the Side: This is one of 17 films per IMDB that feature an “Asian Man White Woman Relationship”