Hong Sangsoo continues to refine his quirky style, making it funnier, more elegant, and more subtly weird. Like Yasujiro Ozu or Eric Rohmer, Hong seems content to spend years creating endless variations of the same central subjects (in his case vacations, infidelity, drinking, and lazy filmmakers) within the same self-mirroring narrative style (where his first films tended to have a dual structure, with the first half of the film varying the second, his later films have expanded that to threes, fours, and more). And like Ozu and Rohmer, I never fail to find his films delightful. This might be Hong’s gentlest film, warm and hilarious.
A short prologue sets up the frame story for the film: a young woman and her mother are hiding out from creditors in a small seaside hotel. The girl decides to pass the time by working on a screenplay, the main character of which she’s basing on a French woman she met at the Jeonju Film Festival (the rumor is that Hong based the character on Claire Denis). The writer appears to be the only Hong writer who actually goes to a hotel and works, perhaps because that’s not why she went there in the first place. Through the film she’ll give us three stories about the French woman, all played by Isabelle Huppert and all set in the same small hotel.
In the first, Huppert is a director visiting a director friend, a Korean man with a very pregnant (and jealous) wife. In the second, Huppert is the wife of a car executive meeting her Korean lover in the hotel, except he turns up very late and she keeps falling asleep. In the third, Huppert is a divorcée who comes to the hotel with a professor friend to relax and see the sights. In each story, Huppert is given a different colored outfit (blue, red, green, if I remember correctly) and certain story elements are repeated: she always looks for a picturesque lighthouse; interacts with a boisterous and somewhat dim lifeguard (played by Yoo Junsang, who damn near steals the picture); and always borrows an umbrella from, and walks into town with, the girl who works at the hotel, played by Jung Yumi (Oki in Oki’s Movie and Sunhi in Our Sunhi, who also plays the woman writing the three films). Certain shot setups and dialogue exchanges are repeated as well – Huppert and Jung leaving the hotel are an exact match in everything but their clothes in each story, for example.
A more manic filmmaker would, given this scenario, try to up the ante by intercutting between stories, creating a kind of meta-meta-fictional world. Lee Kwangkuk, Hong’s former assistant, did something similar with his recently released first feature, Romance Joe. But Hong is much more patient. He’s content to tell his stories on their own, one after the other, rather than mix them up, counting on us to remember the rhymes ourselves rather than underline them for us. To be sure, there is some bleeding between stories, but it’s of a very minor variety. More like the screenwriter simply forgetting where she left the umbrella in which version of the story than a postmodern wink and a nudge. It’s even possible that all three films take place in the same universe: all the Koreans stay the same, while the French woman appears in three different incarnations.
It’s that frame story that’s nags at me most about this film, that sticks out like an absent note in a familiar tune. Only in Oki’s Movie has a Hong shown his film to be so explicitly constructed, with its four variations on a romance (or multiple romances) told in different perspectives under the auspices of a short film project. But in In Another Country, we never return to the frame story. The last Huppert Tale ends and so does the movie. What happens with the girl and her mother? What about their debts? Is the screenplay she’s working on three ideas about a film, or a film made up of three short stories loosely connected by a frame, in other words, the film we just watched? And if the film she wrote has that same unresolved frame, then that irresolution proceeds into infinity: the film she’s writing about a girl writing a film about a girl writing a film about a girl. . . story within story delicately threaded and never finished, never finishable.