Thinly framed as a dramatization of a screenplay being written by a young woman in an attempt to distract herself from a family crisis too incredible to cope with ("So these things really happen," she says. "What am I doing here?"), In Another Country consists of three short stories, unrelated to one another but extremely similar, featuring the same actors playing different characters but doing more or less the same things. In each, a different French woman played by Isabelle Huppert -- a filmmaker, the cheating wife of a businessman, and a depressed recent divorcee -- spends a few days in the same unspectacular seaside tourist trap, where she has similar, quasi-romantic, sometime drunken encounters with two Korean men. In each vignette, the woman is pursued inappropriately, leading to several warnings about "that kind of Korean man."
"That kind of Korean man" is writer-director Hong Sang-Soo's specialty. The repeating of story elements within a film presented as an evolving artwork/attempt at catharsis constitutes an acknowledgement of Hong's own tendency to work through his ongoing issues through constant repetition with key variations. Throughout his body of work, the same basic events over and over again: a seemingly mild-mannered man, often a film director, travels to a town, usually somewhere he's been before; he drinks too much and obsesses over a woman; often he ends up hooking up with a different woman, or maybe there are two women who bear an uncanny resemblance to one another (played by the same actress). His professional struggles are often acknowledged (sometimes he claims to be on a hiatus from filmmaking), and yet everywhere he goes, he's recognized by young, pretty girls -- establishing a power relationship that makes the main male character's inability to rationally control his desire all the more louche. Nighttime passions are quickly brushed aside come morning. Locations and situations are revisited. Mistakes are made, and then made again, and again, and again. Dreams/imaginings and waking/real space flow into one another without immediately evident demarcation. All of this is presented with a very specific tone, often at once deadpan comic and melancholic, self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing. They're extremely self-aware films about narcissism.
That Hong does the same thing over and over again -- and that what he does is examine a certain type of man's inability to learn from his mistakes, particularly where sex is involved -- makes Hong kind of the Korean equivalent of Woody Allen. But where Allen has turned repetition into a better-than-break-even brand, Hong has a cult following within a certain cinephile set (myself included), but his many films (he's produced an average of one feature per year since 2007) have never been commercial prospects, in Korea or elsewhere, not even within the specialized arthouse market. His last few haven't found significant theatrical distribution in the States; 2010's Oki's Movie and 2011's The Day He Arrives, which both recently screened for a week in New York, aren't currently scheduled to show in LA at all.
The presence of Huppert in this one suggests an interest in branching out beyond the cult faithful -- she's known to arthouse audiences in ways in which Hong's usual Korean actors (some of whom repeat from film to film, natch) are not. But as an outsider to his world and as an extremely gifted actress who nails Hong's target of pathos rising off of goofball sex farce, her presence also allows Hong to not just cop to but actually interrogate some of his favorite themes from point-blank range in a way I've never seen him do before (I've seen his eight most recent features). There's one scene in which one of the Huppert characters seeks guidance from a monk. She asks, "What is love for you?" And he answers, "Something you will have to do forever." To her follow-up, "What is sex?," he responds, "Something I will have trouble with until I die." That's the driving contradiction of Hong's work in a nutshell, and the transparency of it is weirdly poignant.In Another Country may take Hong's signature style and concerns to a new level, but it's still well within what we expect from a Hong Sang-Soo film. The great surprise of Cannes thus far, Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love, is identifiable as a Kiarostami joint in a couple of key ways -- mainly, that it's conversation-based, and a big chunk of it consists of long takes of people riding in cars -- but in terms of tone and subject matter, it's nothing if not unexpected. The film traces less than a day in the life of Akiko, a college student/call girl who, in the film's first scene, tells both boyfriend and pimp that she can't do what they're asking of her because she needs to study and see her visiting grandmother. Much of the scene consists of a long tableau shot of a bar from Akiko's point of view -- immersing us in her world for a while before we actually see her face. Once we do, it soon becomes evident that she lacks the ability to really stand up to the men in her life in any substantive way. And sure enough, soon she's in a cab on the way to a client's house, listening to a half dozen voicemail messages from her grandmother on the ride.
That client is Takeshi, a retired professor at the college where Akiko is studying sociology (and doing so without conviction; in one of the film's key conversations, she admits to confusing Darwin and Durkheim on an exam). Takeshi wants to wine and dine his young date; as she tries to rush along the bedroom portion of the evening, the older man stalls. She falls asleep, and in the morning he drives her to class, where both are confronted by the boyfriend we previously heard Akiko lying to. The film ends with a shock and a jolt, an indication that facades have literally come crashing down -- and then a cut to black. Much of the audience at last night's press screening (many of whom waited for an hour or more in pouring rain to get into the theater) greeted that abrupt conclusion with laughter -- some because they apparently thought what just happened was a punchline; other laughs heralded impending boos.
As much as it takes mistaken and appropriated identity as a subject (not unlike Kiarostami's last film, Certified Copy), Love's own enigmatic, constantly shifting generic identity is at least as compelling as any of its actual content (and I was pretty enraptured throughout, though sometimes mostly by aesthetics -- the look is gloriously polished). The movie, which gets its title from a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald that plays during Takeshi and Akiko's date, is infused with a jazzy melancholy, not least in the stunning taxi scene. But it's also a kind of screwball comedy, and kind of a noir -- both genres rich with playacting. I'm not going to pretend I fully "get" exactly what Kiarostami is up to here -- if anything I've seen here deserves more brain space than I have available to give it during in the middle of the festival marathon, it's this -- but I was pleasantly disoriented throughout, and I thought the film's final moment was thrilling.
Although some are predicting that Amour has the 2013 Best Foreign-Language Oscar on lock, to measure Cannes selections such as Haneke's, Hong's and Kiarostami's for their Hollywood crossover potential is pretty misguided. All three films have and will continue to have detractors because they're so dedicated to scrambling an audience's expectations, and thereby redefining what a film can be or do. And that obliteration of expectations is exactly what we should expect to get at this festival.