In Another Country is a product of South Korean writer/director Hong Sang-Soo, and this is his 13th feature release. He is not a household name among cineaste, but he soon will be. I believe that the auteur theory was created for people like Sang-Soo, as each one of his films has an unmistakable quality to them. Not just the stories and themes he uses or how he frames and directs actors, but his use of atmosphere and how it affects me. Sang-Soo’s movies have a very muggy sense to them as if the characters can’t quite take a deep breath without it catching. In Another Country is the muggiest of them all. Characters are constantly discussing rain and trading umbrellas back and forth. We never actually see the rain—the way we would in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954)—but we feel it all the same. It acts as a kind of ennui constantly surrounding the characters. They feel it, we know it’s there, and we feel it too.
The story within In Another Country is crafted by a character that we barely meet. We don’t know who this woman is, why she is writing this story, why we should even bother to watch or care about her story, but we do. So it goes with directors, novelists, and musicians. Sometimes their names are recognizable to us, we get excited to see the new Tarantino film or listen to the latest Radiohead album, but most of the time, we watch movies, read books, and listen to music with no idea of who it is telling us these stories. We surrender ourselves to their thoughts, their insights, their hang-ups, and their insecurities. We do it because it’s entertaining and sometimes because it’s enlightening.
A student (Jung Yoo-mi) is stranded at a resort in Mohang Beach with her mother (Yoon Yeo-Jeong), trying to escape their debtors. The student, either out of frustration or necessitated by work, writes three stories that all take place in the resort of Mohang Beach. There is one shot of the student writing the stories, and that shot acts like a bumper between the three. All three stories contain the same characters, played by the same actors, but with variations on a theme. Last year, Cloud Atlas utilized the same actors in different parts in different timelines to show us that all the world’s a stage, and in it, we play many parts. In Another Country plays this idea out a lot better, possibly because the story is much more contained, but also because In Another Country utilizes visual rhythms to either point out the differences or to point out the similarities between the themes.
The first story, Isabelle Huppert, plays a French director who is being led around Mohang Beach by Korean director, Jong-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and his pregnant wife (Moon So-ri). There is a back story between Huppert and Jong-soo that is hinted at, and the wife is rightly jealous. Jong-soo seems to care for Huppert’s unnamed character, but she couldn’t care less for him. Huppert meets Lifeguard (Yoo Jun-Sang), and he falls for the exotic foreign lady. It’s possible that she feels the same for him, but that is left to us to decide as Huppert gives him a letter that he can’t read. The second story, Huppert is a married woman who has come to Mohang Beach to have an affair with a Korean director, Moon-soo (Moon Sung-keun), who is late to the rendezvous. Huppert passes the time by wandering the beach and indulging in various fantasies where Moon-soo appears. When he finally does, he is less than a dream. He is paranoid that he will be found out and makes her follow him through town by several paces. He is jealous when she talks too long to Lifeguard and yells at her in a restaurant. The third story has Huppert coming to Mohang Beach with Park Sook (Yoon Yeo-jeong) to escape the pangs of her recent divorce. She wanders the island, gets drunk with Jong-soo, and sort of seduces him until they are caught, and he gets in trouble. She berates a Buddhist priest and alleviates him of his favorite possession. Then she drinks too much, finds Lifeguard, gets him drunk, and sleeps with him, but then leaves him before he wakes up.
There are recurring themes to each story: drunkenness, infidelity, philandering Korean men, the seductive innocence of Korean women, and the exoticism of Huppert’s character. Ever story, her mere presence causes issues for the resort beach. The first story, it is not her fault, the second, maybe, and the third, oh yeah. Sang-soo does an excellent job of letting the audience come to their own conclusions about the why behind the actions.
D.W. Griffith once said that movies need the wind in the trees. For Griffith, the wind in the trees added beauty. For Sang-Soo, the wind in the trees not only adds beauty, it creates a feeling of being there. It adds a nostalgic effect where we see the stories presented to us as related to our own stories. We have all gone through these emotions, and these strong memories have very strong smells, strong feelings, and a strong sense of time and place. In Another Country and an earlier effort of his, Woman on the Beach (2006), are both set in seaside resort towns, and both films provided a melancholic sense of existence. Look at the face of Huppert during these three stories, and you will see that melancholy.
Sang-soo paces this film perfectly, not too slow, and not rushing anywhere. The movie is all of 89 minutes, but it is not in a hurry to go anywhere fast. Quiet moments where Huppert sits on a rock and drinks soju. She goes to find Lifeguard and drinks another bottle of soju with him. They get drunk, and she sleeps with him. A simple shot of them drinking from a bottle, a shot of them in the tent, would have given us all the information necessary to understand what happened, but Sang-soo leaves the camera on them as they drink from the bottle. Huppert taking swig after swig, Lifeguard trying to piece together what exactly is going on while the effects of the alcohol start to slow his thoughts. Cutting away from this scene leaves out all the emotion on Huppert and Jun-sang’s faces. It takes the meat out of the movie and reduces it to a simple series of events. What Sang-soo has here is much more than a simple series of events strung together like popcorn on a string. It’s not a slice of life; it’s just life itself.
In Another Country (2012)
Written and Directed By: Hong Sang-soo
Produced By: Kim Kyoung Hee
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kwon Hye Hyo, Jung Yu Mi, So-ri Moon, Moon Sung Keun, Yeo-jeong Yoon, Jun-Sang Yu
Kino Lorber, Running Time 89 minutes, Not Rated, Released January 11, 2013.