Saturday, October 20, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: In Another Country

In Another Country (Da-reun na-ra-e-suh, 2012), leading Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo's thirteenth feature in seventeen years and his third to screen in competition at the Cannes Film Festival (in eight appearances), maintains the writer-director's career-defining and spanning predilection for multi-part narratives with a three movement work that centers on the great Isabelle Huppert as three separate French visitors named Anne. As Huppert passes from film director to adulteress (in a heavily subjective, dream-centered segment) to wronged wife in Hong's three discrete parts - the filmmaker frames each with self-reflexive voice-over from the young female screenwriter (Jung Yoo-mi) who invents Huppert's diverging incarnations, out of an impulse to escape from her real-world familial concerns - Hong preserves the same coastal Mohang setting and supporting cast with whom all three Anne's will come to interact. That is, in her separate identities, Huppert's characters will encounter and spend time with a maritally unfaithful filmmaker colleague/stranger (Kwon Hae-hyo) and his very pregnant and justifiably jealous wife (Moon So-ri); a local female twenty-something who time and again hospitably supplies Huppert with an umbrella; and a muscular lifeguard (Yoo Jun-sang) whom she asks, to no avail, for the location of a lighthouse (in all three parts). Hong, in other words, creates a continuous narrative setting, a unified diegetic world - with one object pointedly carrying over from parts two to three - which Huppert's respective Anne's will each inhabit and explore.

Through In Another Country's tripartite organization, Hong effectively produces a metaphor for his broader body of work, which in the tradition of Piet Mondrian and the director's spiritual master, French director Eric Rohmer, adheres to a discrete or closed system. In Hong's particular case, the key elements - to Mondrian's primary colors, negative white or off-white spaces and thick black lines - tend to include a mid-to-late thirty-something filmmaker, typically on holiday in a seaside location, where he spends most of his waking time drinking, conversing and screwing; male and female friends, including at least one younger, romantically dissatisfied female lead, who often maintains a professional or institutional connection to the director; and, aesthetically speaking, single-shot sequences comprised of conspicuous moments of stasis, panning set-ups that alternate between two speakers and the occasional re-framing zoom. While the Huppert-centered In Another Country therefore represents some form of break from the more conventional Hong system (though it does still adhere strongly to Hong's visual schemata) the director's latest again serves to allegorize the theme-and-variation structure that heretofore has spread out across the outstanding Korean director's corpus. This is to say that In Another Country translates Hong's broader, closed method of practice into a discrete single-film form, with each part analogous to a full feature.

In Another Country of course also represents yet another in a line departures from the two-part structures that served as the director's most recognizable signature from his masterpiece The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) on through to his superlative Woman on the Beach (2006). In these films, as programmer and critic James Quandt has very adroitly pointed out, one can see the split (North and South) identity of the Korean nation as it is portrayed in a set of narratives that though they parallel and even mirror one another, nonetheless remain divided. In Another Country, on the other hand, belongs to a more recent phase in the director's body of work, one that began especially with the Parisian-set Night and Day (2008), which though it still keys on repetition, seeks instead new forms of organization - like Night and Day's Rohmerian diaristic structure or once again In Another Country's three-part division. Though the filmmaker continues in these films to portray the same feckless Korean male and his outspoken feminine counterpart (see the filmmaker and his wife of In Another Country), which is to say though he extends his depiction of Korea's dysfunctional masculinity and at times unruly femininity, he does so through forms that speak less to the broader implications of national identity, than to the aesthetic sources of his art - which true to the inter-texts of Night and Day and In Another Country, are French in nature. (In fact, one might even say of In Another Country that while the film continues to identify the shortcomings of the Korean male in particular, its primary parallel focus has become the French, rather than the Korean woman, with Huppert providing a multi-faceted, emblematic depiction of Gallic womanhood.)

Huppert of course is the catalyzing factor, as was Paris in Night and Day, in identifying Hong's latest as French in its artistic orientation. (Hong as always is the most French of Korean directors.) However, it is Eric Rohmer, again, who provides not only the conversational holiday idiom to which the director's latest adheres, but also a conceptual source for the Korean film's multi-part organization in his Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987) and the tripartite Rendezvous in Paris (1995); as well as the personal Hong favorite, Rohmer's supreme masterpiece The Green Ray (1986), which In Another Country will subtly reference. With regard to the latter, Hong succeeds in evoking the Rohmer picture in Huppert's inquiries about a small lighthouse (cf. Rohmer's eponymous ray and Saint-Jean-de-Luz seaside location), her lonely perambulations and solitary gazes toward the expansive water, and even the religious content that appears in a Buddhist shrine and Huppert's consequent discussion with a monk. Ultimately, though, In Another Country reaches its own romantic epiphany, which expressly lacks both the transformation of The Green Ray's concluding set-piece and also its the parallel religious implication. This is to say that though Hong references Rohmer, he very much makes his inspiration his own.

Most of all, still speaking of the film in its Green Ray context, there is the lack of verbal expressivity that is common to both works. In Hong's film, the inability to express oneself comes not from his characters' personalities or states of mind, but rather from their imperfect ability to communicate in a shared English language, which in the case of the Korean film provides a number of immediately pleasurable comedic exchanges. Among the most memorable, certainly, are those that feature Yoo's semi-fluent lifeguard, who in all three parts invites Huppert to visit his tent, before awkwardly offering his tiny residence as a gift. In parts one and three, Huppert's Anne accepts the former invitation with the first Anne being greeted by an impromptu musical performance, presented in an extreme-long, occluded framing, and the third by more intimate exchange - and an appropriately more restricted shot choice. Yoo's character, it remains to be said, provides much of the easy pleasure of a film that for the English viewer is nothing if not accessible. Indeed, with its effectively drawn supporting comedic players, its dialogue-centered comedy that relies disproportionately on its spectators' comprehension of the English language and most of all, Huppert's presence, Hong at long last may have made a film that will provide him with some minute measure of American commercial success. At the very least, he has made another in a long, if perhaps only modestly variably line of first-rate art house entertainments.

In Another Country, which will be released theatrically in the US by Kino Lorber, screens at the Starz Denver Film Festival Friday, November 2 at 6:45 PM; Saturday, November 3 at 10:00 PM and Monday, November 5 at 1:45 PM.

No comments: