It's never quite safe to trust your eyes or your memory when it comes to In Another Country, the latest effort from the playful and idiosyncratic Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. Isabelle Huppert appears as three different characters, all apparently named Anne; she's thrice the star of a hypothetical movie within the movie, a screenplay coming together on the notepad of a young Korean woman living away from home.
With this very slight frame story in place, we are introduced to Huppert's first Anne, a French filmmaker arriving with friends in a small South Korean beach town. Anne communicates with her hosts, another filmmaker and his pregnant wife, in English, but they have a habit of arguing in Korean in front of her. She's the target of perhaps unwanted advances from her Korean host, and her aimless trip around the town leads to a similarly awkward encounter with an overeager lifeguard. She gets drunk with the filmmaker, rejects and then apologizes to the lifeguard all grist for the drama mill, it seems. Then everything resets.
Our screenwriter-narrator tells us we're on to the next visitor, the wife of a Korean businessman. Huppert then reappears at the same seaside town and stays in the same room, but this time she's sporting a new appearance and personality. She's there for a tryst with her lover a Korean filmmaker. Her story parallels the first in many details conversations recur, the lifeguard appears again, Huppert borrows an umbrella from a young lady. If the screenwriter hadn't set this in continuity with the first episode, we might safely assume it was a revision of the same sequence. The third episode follows suit a new persona for Anne, events that echo or fully repeat earlier actions, with the characters slightly reshuffled.
Through his writer-narrator, Hong seems to be rehearsing the same themes over and over with slight variations. He's concerned with how people interact and react, so he pits characters against each other with no regard for conventions of narrative cohesion. When I wrote about his previous film, The Day He Arrives, I called it a "movie-movie," and the same could be said of In Another Country it's an ouroboros of a film, a self-sustaining fire flickering and flaring as it exhausts narrative possibilities.
One device aside from the narration repeatedly reminds you that you're watching a performance: sudden, smooth but unusually obtrusive camera zooms. This simple, Godardian distancing tactic might prove jarring to some, but it ends up mostly inviting laughs.
Hong's fast-and-loose narrative silliness does require a certain amount of patience from the viewer. Plot details conflict, and assumptions about a character's role and relationships will probably be upended but all to fascinating or greatly comic effect. Hong is an obsessive investigator of human relationships and motivations, which propels his winningly adventurous filmmaking into subtle but powerful emotional territory. In Another Country sets its characters adrift inside its own narrative sphere, letting them live several lives in the course of an hour and a half, and letting us share in their freedom. (Recommended)