South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo (Woman On The Beach) tends to make the same movie over and over: a multi-part story in which heavily inebriated males—usually academics or filmmakers—awkwardly woo one or more bewildered females. So it came as a seismic shock when Hong announced that he’d cast Isabelle Huppert as the lead in his latest effort, In Another Country. His shift to a woman’s point of view was unprecedented in his work, and it was harder still to imagine a glamorous French movie star fitting into his extremely insular universe. As it turns out, however, Hong Sang-soo can make a Hong Sang-soo movie under any conceivable circumstance. For those who have never had the pleasure, In Another Country makes an ideal introduction; those who have had it many times should know almost exactly what to expect.
When first introduced, Huppert plays a celebrated French director (Claire Denis?) vacationing in a South Korean beach town at the behest of a male colleague, who immediately puts the moves on her, in spite of his wife’s constant presence. After a while, however, the story re-sets, casting Huppert as a mogul’s wife who arrives at the same beach town to resume her affair with a completely different Korean filmmaker. Then it re-sets again, with Huppert now recently divorced (due to her ex-husband’s affair with a Korean woman—not a filmmaker!) and combing the beach town in search of answers to what went wrong. In all three episodes, the character’s name is Anne, and in all three, she’s repeatedly accosted by the same hilariously gregarious lifeguard (Yu Jun-sang), who awkwardly woos her in broken English.
In spite of Huppert’s central presence, her role is largely reactive—she’s a repository for the Korean characters’ usual foibles, which are complicated only slightly by a foreigner’s presence. The language barrier does provide Hong with a new, rewarding source of goofy humor (every scene involving the lifeguard’s excitable efforts to seduce Huppert is pure gold), and his gift for exposing the various ways in people kid themselves romantically remains intact. But reverberations among the three stories are mostly inconsequential, which creates a sense of diminishing returns. Like the sleepy resort town where it’s set, In Another Country is pleasant but nondescript; while it’s fun to see Huppert integrated into the usual Hong landscape, it’s also hard not to feel as if he missed a golden opportunity to challenge himself creatively. One of these times, he needs to abandon his tiny, tidy set of preoccupations. It may take Nicolas Cage.