Friday, December 21, 2012

The Unbearable Awkwardness of Being a Korean Filmmaker, Part 2: The Awkwardenning: Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country

2012 has been a big year for Hong Sang-soo.  The prolific Korean director released two feature films, The Day He Arrives, which was one of the first films I reviewed on this blog, and In Another Country, which I just watched this evening.  Now, like Ozu before him, Hong basically has one movie in him, which he remakes with slight variations every time he directs a new movie.  As I believe I described in my review of The Day He Arrives, the basic Hong plot works like this: a semi-successful Korean filmmaker, who’s also something of a dick, travels to [the beach/some tourist spot/some bar he used to frequent/some combination thereof] where he meets up with old friends, and they all drink excessively, and they all say hurtful things to each other.  Then somebody usually has sex with someone.  Now, he’s tweaked this framework to varying degrees in some of his films.  For instance, in Night and Day, the action is transplanted from Korea to Paris, where the exact same premise plays out.  But the plot is generally pretty consistent.
For In Another Country, Hong’s variation is the introduction of a foreigner (Isabelle Huppert) into the milieu.  We start out with a frame story, in which a young screenwriter finds herself stranded in some backwater seaside town with her mother, who appears to have squandered the family fortune by cosigning something for a disreputable uncle.  To calm her nerves, the young screenwriter decides to write a screenplay, or more precisely, three screenplays, each of which stars a Frenchwoman named Anne (Huppert) and a cast of reappearing actors as they play out slightly different scenarios in the seaside town.  And this is the movie we see.  In the first scenario, Huppert is a famous French director visiting a Korean director and his very pregnant wife, and all sorts of cringe-inducing awkwardness ensues between her and the director and a really, really enthusiastic lifeguard who flirts with her aggressively (he lives in a tent on the beach, and when she praises it, he offers to give it to her).  She also looks for and fails to find a lighthouse that’s supposed to be a local landmark.  In the second piece, Huppert is a Frenchwoman who has arrived in the town to meet up with her lover, who may or may not ever actually show up, as this scenario seems to be a dream nestled within a dream.  We have the same lifeguard, who’s really excited to be meeting a foreign woman.  And once again, the search for the lighthouse (to the lighthouse!)  In the third and final scenario, Huppert’s husband has abandoned her for his Korean employee, and Huppert has come to the town with a Korean professor (played by the same actress who plays the mother in the frame-story) to try to escape from her problems.  Once again, the lifeguard.  Once again, the search for the lighthouse.
One of the things that most distinguishes this film from Hong’s previous movies is its heavy use of the English language.  Huppert’s character doesn’t speak Korean and the Koreans don’t speak French, so English serves them as a lingua franca.  In Another Country is similar in this respect to Johnnie To’s Vengeance and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, both of which feature heavy use of English as a means of communication between people who don’t speak it as a first language.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this seems to be a good compromise for Asian directors who want to make an English-language movie (for some misguided reason) but who also want the movie not to be awful (for Asian directors who didn’t take this lesson to heart and packed off to America to produce movies that no one liked, please see: Chen Kaige, John Woo, and Wong Kar-wai).
Huppert is a wonderful actor, and it’s refreshing to see her in a movie where her character isn’t being physically or emotionally destroyed (as tends to be the case in her collaborations with Michael Haneke).  Huppert’s presence as a foreigner introduces a new variable into the Hong matrix and he explores it with his usual tenacity (he once again explores his theme of Korean sexual anxiety around foreigners that he first raised in Woman on the Beach).  As for In Another Country’s place in Hong’s larger oeuvre, his delicately observed and cringe-inducing depictions of painful social relations continue to fascinate.  He may only have one story to tell, but like Ozu, it’s a story worth telling and approaching again and again from different angles.  He already has a movie in the works for 2013—it’s called Nobody’s Daughter Hae-won—and I for one eagerly anticipate another story of drunken Korean film people being terrible to each other.

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