In Another Country: Hong Sang-soo's visions and revisions | Bleader

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In Another Country: Hong Sang-soo's visions and revisions

Posted By on 05.01.13 at 02:57 PM

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Isabelle Huppert stars as three different women named Anne.
  • Isabelle Huppert stars as three different women named Anne.
Hong Sang-soo's 2012 feature In Another Country, which never received a single theatrical screening in Chicago but is now available on DVD, opens with a fine Buñuelian joke. A young woman commiserates with her mother about their family going bankrupt and having to leave Seoul in disgrace as a result of her uncle's shady dealings. The conversation unfolds in a plainly dressed but rigorously framed two shot that's instantly recognizable as Hong's, even though the content differs from his usual shtick about film-world sniping and thwarted romance. Is the prolific South Korean filmmaker, perhaps the most stubbornly consistent since Yasujiro Ozu, branching out in his subject matter?

Cut to the next scene: The young woman goes to another room and starts working on a film script. It was going to be about a family going bankrupt, she says in her voice-over narration, but now she's decided to write about a French director (Isabelle Huppert) visiting South Korea and staying with a local filmmaker. Hong shifts immediately to the movie she's imagining, a low-key tale about film-world types remarkably similar to one of his own. So much for branching out!

Like much else in Hong's work, this joke will strike some viewers as self-involved. He consistently draws on aspects of his own life for characters and narrative developments—the more you know about his personal life, the more aspects of it you'll see in the films. For instance, the narrator identifies Huppert's character "as the French director I saw at the Jeonju Film Festival," which is likely a reference to Hong having met French filmmaker Claire Denis at that festival a few years back. Yet I've always considered these personal details a ruse. It seems a dead giveaway that the characters who most resemble Hong are always the least dignified; Philip Roth and Paul Auster also established well-known precedents for this sort of false-autobiography game in their 1980s novels.

Hong, like Roth and Auster, manipulates aspects of his life to illustrate the all-consuming nature of creating fiction. Some of his films illustrate it better than others, but I wouldn't call any of them bad. His body of work (14 films and one featurette since 1996) is all of a piece, chronicling the author's ongoing struggle to find his way out of the hall of mirrors he entered by becoming a storyteller. And so the joke that opens In Another Country isn't confessional, per se, but a sort of commiserating nod to artists everywhere. This is what it's like, he seems to be saying, to find yourself immersed once again in the same creative obsessions—it's like having the same bad dream so many times it starts to make you feel exasperated rather than frightened.

In Another Country contains at least three dream sequences, though there may be more. As the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell which scenes are "real" and which ones are imagined by characters within the story. If we're getting technical, though, practically nothing in the movie is "real"; Hong often reminds us that what we're seeing are merely sketches written by a young screenwriter to amuse herself. The movie transpires into three sections—or "drafts"—each one roughly a half-hour long. After she imagines the French filmmaker's uneasy visit with the Hong-like director and his wife (which is marked by characteristic passive-aggressive oneupmanship), the writer decides to rewrite the story. She keeps the French heroine and resort-town setting, but this time Huppert plays the wife of a car-company executive who goes to the town for a tryst with a different Korean filmmaker. To me, this section is the most interesting of the film, structured as a succession of dreams that the Huppert character has while waiting for her lover to arrive—a series of revisions within the revision.

Huppert with the lifeguard
  • Huppert with the lifeguard
Numerous details from the first section return in the second section and yet again in the third, when Huppert's character becomes a jilted wife who retreats to the resort town with a professor friend. A local lifeguard appears in each tale and develops a crush on Huppert, and each story repeats the same joke about her trying and failing to find a lighthouse that seems to be the town's sole landmark. When I described this aspect of the film to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, he remarked, "People are always standing around asking for directions in Hong Sang-soo movies." "I know," I replied, "it's as much of a constant as guys walking down the street in Lou Reed songs."

Just as Reed seems to get walking down the street better than any other songwriter, there are several things that Hong observes better than nearly any other filmmaker. Chief among them is the failed sexual pass that takes the wind of arrogant men. His male characters usually end up navigating a slim passage between acting on their selfish desires and retaining their (often trivial) status as respectable artists—for the most part, they crash and burn. Another running gag of In Another Country is that the lifeguard's childish infatuation always seems refreshing to the Huppert character in contrast to the self-serving "sophistication" of the filmmaker she's with. This being a Hong Sang-soo movie, any alternative to illusion seems rather nice indeed.

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