AFI Fest- In Another Country, by Scott Nye

10 Nov

With its beachside setting, from which it never strays, and small company of actors (including Isabelle Huppert in three roles), In Another Country could almost be theatre, but make no mistake, in its final form, Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country is as pure as cinema gets. With a visual wit to match his verbal, Hong has crafted one of the purest delights I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing at this festival, or indeed in the movies this year.

With a touch of the meta-fictional, Hong begins by depicting the writing process itself. A young woman, seeking to distance herself from some familial strife, begins writing three short stories about visitors to the beach house she occupies. Each visitor is a French woman named Anne (all Huppert) with different reasons for escaping to the ocean – the first to run from debt, the second to pursue an affair, the final because her husband had recently left her – but are all united by…something. Their interactions with the house staff and nearby residents are often repeated in a search for common landmarks and modes of communication, but rather than emphasize the banality of discourse, it becomes a rather entertaining representation of the universality of such sojourns.

It also helps that the actors are so game that we hardly regret each repeated interaction, especially as many of them involve Yoo Jun-sang, giving perhaps the finest supporting performance I’ve seen all year, as the coast’s lifeguard. Yoo lets not a second go by wasted, making the simple process of walking from one place to the next account for some of the film’s most hilarious passages. He perfectly embodies that eager civil servant who probably has too much time on his hands (his beach is almost totally bereft of visitors), and is just overjoyed at the prospect of helping someone, communication gap be damned.

Huppert doesn’t go out of her way to distinguish her characters, most of them having similar mannerisms and speech patterns. Hong distinguishes them just enough on the page to make it work, but Huppert is really there as the anchor, the leading lady, and while she doesn’t do more than she’s called to, she’s such a winning presence that any further embellishment would’ve been in error.

Hong’s shooting pattern here is fascinating, utilizing the tripod-bound, single-setup technique so valued in world cinema right now, but subverting it in unexpected ways. In the opening shot, for example, he suddenly zooms very quickly into a tighter framing of the action without any clear motivational mark. On paper, it sounds intrusive or excessive, but in practice it set off a huge laugh in the audience, setting us up for the rare art film that’s also really, really funny. He maintains that sort of dexterity throughout, never fully unleashing the camera while still feeling unbound from the conventions of cinematic storytelling.

While the girl writing these tales continues to pop up, she is not the focus – her stories have already come alive, and, by the last shot, interacted with a whimsical depth characteristic of the film as a whole. I suppose this speaks to the nature of storytelling, even when done in private, but more than anything, In Another Country was just a pleasure to experience, proving that art cinema can indeed be a ton of fun.

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