March 4, 2013

In Another Country - Korean film review

Isabelle Huppert and Yu Jun Sang chat on the beach on the film poster for In Another CountryIn Another Country (다른 나라에서) is a 2012 Korean film which I saw during its recent U.S. run. It was directed by Hong Sang Soo, who has 13 previous films to his credit. Although it is billed as his first English-language film, about half of the dialogue is in subtitled Korean. The location and most of the actors are also Korean.

In Another Country consists of three vignettes, bookended by a mini-Kdrama. It opens at a Korean beach resort in the off-season. A mother (ubiquitous drama actress Yoon Yeo Jung, last seen as the mother in My Husband Got a Family) and her daughter (Jung Yoo Mi) are hiding out from loan sharks who are trying to collect on the debts of her irresponsible brother. To while away the time, fledgling playwright Jung Yoo Mi dreams up three scenarios set at the same resort, which comprise the rest of the film.

The vignettes are variations on a theme, with actors playing somewhat similar characters across the chapters. Renowned French actress Isabelle Huppert, the sole western actor, plays the central character, in varying states of tumult in each episode.

“Anne” is clumsily courted by a hunky but dim young lifeguard, played by My Husband Got a Family star Yu Jun Sang. This role is so different from successful thirty-something doctor Terry Kang that I didn’t immediately place him (he looks quite different without glasses). His attempts to flirt with Isabelle Huppert in very limited English are among the most humorous scenes in the film. Kwon Hae Hyo plays another guest at the resort, a film director with a very pregnant wife (Moon So Ri), who also lusts after Huppert (the director, not the wife).

In Another Country struck me as very French in style, and not just because Huppert is in it. We are dropped into the middle of the stories with minimal knowledge of the characters, so their actions come across as impulsive and arbitrary. There doesn’t seem to be any underlying message, unless it’s that men are unremitting horn dogs. It’s a bit like a sugary dessert – you enjoy it while you are eating it, but it’s not very substantial. There were many chuckles in the audience throughout the film and I chuckled along. But once it was over, I remembered it as more style than substance.

According to articles about Hong Sang Soo, In Another Country is characteristic of his signature themes and structure. His production technique is quirky. He may take the actors to the location and write the script once they arrive, or get them drunk and film them in scenes they don’t even remember. He is ostentatiously enigmatic in interviews. Or is he satirizing artistic pretensions? I was reminded a little of Henry Jaglom, an equally offbeat and off the cuff American director.

Korean TV dramas do tend to bludgeon viewers repeatedly with their morals and messages. Perhaps a steady Kdrama diet has dulled my senses to a more subtle touch? But no, that isn’t it. Doenjang, a 2010 film which I recently discovered, is exquisitely delicate, and I loved it for that. In Another Country is simply not in the same league.

Although In Another Country didn’t resonate enough to make me run out and find other Hong Sang Soo films, there were a couple of moments that lingered. One involves Yoon Yeo Jung, who plays the mother in the bookending drama segments, as well as appearing in the third vignette as a friend of Huppert’s character. I have only seen her play traditional and rather temperamental working class stay-at-home moms. Her adept portrayal of an urbane academic was startling, especially when she shifted into fluent, virtually unaccented English. Who knew?!

The other high point was a dialogue in which Huppert challenges and flirts with a Buddhist monk (Kim Yong Ok). Wordplay, mind games, and a c’est la vie focus in the moment create an unexpected intersection between the two culturally divergent characters.

The film itself is a mind game. Broken glass on the beach in the first scene results from an incident in the third, bridging the parallel universes while contradicting their chronology. I suspect In Another Country is a colossal joke by a consummate poseur, masquerading as a koan on emptiness.

If you want to be mildly intrigued and amused by human foibles without having to think too hard, this is the film for you. If you’re looking for drama, passion, or Big Questions, try something with a little more heft.

Related Posts:
My Husband Got a Family – Mid-Series Review
My Husband Got a Family – Final Thoughts

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