Distilling the shifting-sands temporal confusion of The Day He Arrives into a deceivingly lightweight, travel-ready package, Hong Sang-soo hits the beach once again in his latest project, another austerely amusing study of hopeless neurotics making a mockery of leisure. Telling three intermingled stories set in a dreary seaside community, In Another Country comes off as a kissing cousin to Hong’s previous film, swapping its gorgeously snow-kissed Seoul for the visually muted Mohan, the charged familiarity of an old stomping ground for the disorienting novelty of a featureless vacation spot.
Whether set at home or on holiday, Hong’s movies remain obsessively concerned with characters who, despite the continuous motion of their lives, remain emotionally stalled, trapped in closed-circuit repetition of the same mistakes and follies. Pairing an ostensibly rigid structure with mysterious bits of inter-textual recurrence, the film toys with the expected conventions of Hong’s work, modifying some surface aspects (employing a French leading lady, with some strong whiffs of the inverted sex farces of Rohmer’s middle period), while leaving the core fixations intact. In many ways, In Another Country feels like a response to claims that Hong’s spent the last 15 years making the same movie again and again, accusations he answers by telling the same general story in three different permutations.
The most apparent common thread is Isabelle Huppert, playing three different women named Anne, all surrounded by a revolving cast of repeated characters, all having the inherent alienation of their lives amplified by the foreign surrounding. Each of these women technically exists in her own separate narrative, contained within the framing story of a young girl named Won-ju (Jung Yoo-mi) dreaming up screenplay ideas while stuck in Mohan with her mother. Instead, Hong exploits the shared real estate of the creative mind as a venue for a sustained cross-pollination of ideas and concepts, with the connections between the stories making way for the kind of mysterious echo effect that has made the director’s recent films so beguiling.
The first Anne is a director, on a working vacation with a Korean filmmaker and his wife; the second is the wife of a businessman sharing a brief lover’s getaway with her Korean director boyfriend; the third is a recent divorcee recovering from her businessman husband’s infidelity. The three stories occupy their own discrete 30-minute chunks of time, but they also flow into one another, so that the film could accurately be considered a triptych view of a single character glimpsed through three different lenses, each story triangularly repositioning her in a different narrative position. The first Anne is an elusive object of desire, the second is a put-upon victim, the third is a despondent truth-seeker, but all are subjected to the same rough plot outlines, attracting the attentions of a friendly but unhelpful lifeguard (Yoo Jun-sang) while trying to find Mohan’s “small lighthouse,” each embarking on an aborted shopping trip with the background character Won-ju has assigned to herself.
In short, everyone is looking for something they won’t find, and no one gains any real understanding from this fruitless search. Through this kind of subtly intricate storytelling, Hong reveals that he’s doing more than telling the same old tale through a set of shuffled index cards. While it may appear lightweight and even frivolous, In Another Country functions as another experimentally structured examination of unsatisfiable urges and self-destructive impulses, developing previous methods of subterfuge (the climactic bifurcated path of Oki’s Movie, the hall of broken mirrors of The Day He Arrives) into a deceptively simple variation on a similar tale of confused longing.
The individual stories may not seem to form a single result, but they function as three components of the same disconnected arc; it’s not a coincidence that the presentation grows muddier as Anne’s character becomes more developed, complicated by narrative dead ends, recurrent motifs, and imperceptibly staged dream sequences. For Hong, the path to self-realization is inevitably intertwined with a descent into a neurotic maze of disaffection and self-doubt, a labyrinth that his increasingly fresh films continue to explore, using it as a dream-state platform to work out the director’s personal fixations.