As one of the most interesting movie actresses in the world, Isabelle Huppert always draws our attention whenever she appears on the screen. I saw her for the first time in Claude Chabrol’s dark masterwork in “La Cérémonie”(1995), and I kept encountering her again and again in the other movies after that, and her performances have been always fascinating regardless of whether the movies are disappointing like “I Heart Huckabees”(2004) or compelling like “The Piano Teacher”(2001) or “White Material”(2009).
That is why it was a treat to watch her in Hong Sang-soo’s new film “In Another Country”. She has a lightweight fun as the three different versions of the heroine in the movie and, to a South Korean audience like me, her interactions with other South Korean performers were the constant source of amusement throughout the film. I frequently giggled while watching their awkward but funny exchanges, and I was really engaged by Huppert’s presence on the beach town not far from my hometown.
Huppert plays Anne, the character created by the film student named Won-joo(Jeong Yu-mi). Won-joo is spending some time with her mother(Yoon Yeo-jeong) in one beach town named Mohang in Byeonsan area of North Jeolla province. It seems she and her mother fled from the debt collectors due to the problem of her mother’s brother, and maybe they will have to spend more time in this peaceful town until there is a chance to resolve their difficult circumstance. Bored by the stillness of the town, Won-joo decides to spend her time with exploring an idea in her future scenario. Inspired by one French director she met at the film festival, she starts her story with one simple premise – one beautiful French woman visiting Mohang.
In her first draft, Anne is also a French director, and she happens to visit Mohang with her friend Jong-soo and his pregnant wife(Kwon Hae-hyo and Moon So-ri) on one summer day. It is implied that Moon-soo has some feeling toward Anne, but Anne tactfully manages the circumstance when they have some private moment with each other.
While strolling around the town, she comes across a lifeguard on the beach played by Yoo Joon-sang. Although his English is clumsy(he does not realize what lighthouse means in Korean until she tries to explain that word to him with several gestures), their conversation is not like talking to the wall at least, so we get one funny scene when the lifeguard invites Anne to his tent and sings an impromptu song for her with his guitar. The movie adds extra deadpan hilarity to this moment by looking at the tent in a long shot from the outside.
Needless to say, the lifeguard is interested in Anne, but what about her? With the actress like Huppert, you cannot be entirely sure about her character, and Huppert plays the first version of Anne as a wise, reserved, and tactful woman who, in spite of the language barrier between her and others, courteously moves through the comic situations on the verge of being social embarrassments. She eventually finds a good chance to show her real feelings, but, unfortunately, the lifeguard has a certain difficulty in understanding her written words. I could feel lots of sympathy to him because I also experienced the same difficulty despite my more fluent English.
And then we move to the second draft of Won-joo’s story, which is then followed by the third draft. The background is same, and the heroine has the same name, but the characters and their situations are changed or modified or adjusted. For example, in case of the second draft, Anne is a rich married woman having a secret affair with a famous South Korean director(Moon Seong-geun), and she is waiting for him to come and spend a day with her at the town. In the third version, Anne is a divorced woman abandoned by her husband(he left her for his South Korean assistant), and she comes to the town with her close South Korean friend(Yoon Yeo-jeong).
The main pleasure of the movie is how the changes in these different versions work with the recurring characters and elements in each draft. The pension where the characters stay is managed by the same girl(Jeong Yu-mi), who functions differently in each version as a background character. Along with the lifeguard character, the lighthouse in the town works into each version in various ways while he remains struggling to understand what lighthouse means in Korean.
And, at least to the South Korean audiences, it is hilarious to hear the English dialogues delivered with South Korean accent whenever South Korean performers interact with Huppert. Their dialogues indeed sound awkward at first, but they are awkward in a natural way as much as your average non-English speakers; you will not have much trouble in understanding what they say to Anne in English.
Hong Sang-soo is a talented director who knows a lot about how the people talk in real daily life, and he brings a certain degree of spontaneity to his scenes while drawing good performances from his actors. While Huppert is fabulous as the three variations of the heroine character, her South Korean co-actors are also entertaining as the characters revolving around Huppert. I liked the comic earnestness in Yoo Joon-sang’s performance, and I could see why Hong is one of the best directors for the actresses in South Korea through the nice supporting performances by Jeong Yu-mi and Moon So-ri.
As I said in my review for Hong Sang-soo’s previous work “The Day He Arrives”(2011), I did not much like Hong’s films at first because I was not so sure about whether I understood them or not. I do not know whether I have got more acquainted with his movies or his movies become easier and more playful than before, but I recently begin to enjoy his recent films while recognizing the recurring themes in his works. Unlike his characters, I do not have much interest in drinking soju(it’s distilled beverage in South Korea) while having a conversation but I must confess that I was excited to see Isabelle Huppert drinking soju. Huppert on South Korean beach with the bottles of soju is certainly not something you see everyday, you know.