The screenwriting process produces a kind of sandbox cinema in Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, the Korean director’s latest jazz riff on human interconnection. The film’s beach side location may be consistent with earlier films, but its unique characterizations traverse freely outside the logic of conventional storytelling. Made up of three separate pieces, each revolving around a different character played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, the film addresses the overlapping ripple effect of miscommunication, and how a world can be expanded or quantified by simply noticing (or remembering) the details of your surroundings.
From its beginning, In Another Country somersaults forward, spinning and turning on a dime whenever it pleases. The opening scene finds a woman writing a script in her beachside villa, passing the time by flexing her creative muscles, to avoid dealing with the uncertainties of life. Hong then dives inside her imagination, showing us the film's succeeding stories in chronological order and connecting each divergent thread through recurring dialogue and characters. A product of the hazy desire to experiment with time and space, much of In Another Country feels lovingly improvised, light as the persistent whisper of raindrops in its background. There’s very little rush to the character’s actions, in keeping with the island feel of the mainland coastal setting.
Hong is fascinated with the way people interact during awkward situations, focusing organically on the random channels of human movement and speech in times of momentary duress. The first section of In Another Country, in which Huppert’s famous actress visits a Korean director at his vacation home by the sea, is hilarious because it frames controlled confusion in a loving manner. The climax of Huppert’s indoctrination into the natural rhythm of this particular Korean community occurs when she interacts with a local lifeguard (Yu Junsang) who seems hell bent on pleasing her, no matter the cost. Their respectful banter is something special, in which two people cross paths and can’t quite figure out how to connect.
Like virtually all of Hong’s films, In Another Country is made up of diverging narrative tracks unfolding inside the same universe. Props, lines of dialogue, and character expressions all show up multiple times, but always within a different context. As a result, similar situations and motivations that repeat under similar circumstances are given unique qualities specific to the moment they occur. Hong has played with temporal bridging so many times, most wonderfully in last year’s Un Certain Regard entry The Day He Arrives. But In Another Country feels wonderfully lost at times, almost lovingly so, as if to evade anyone attempting to put a label on its freeform verses. Time really doesn’t matter here.
By the end of In Another Country, Huppert’s performing triptych reveals a surprising balance of tones, whisking comedy and tragedy together to establish a level of nuance that connects the three women as unknown kindred spirits. Taken in context, this is exactly what makes Hong’s films so indelible: the spacious and formative revelations people experience during everyday conversations that sneak up suddenly, and then quietly change your life.
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.