Reviewing a Hong Sang-soo film can feel akin to an exercise in cut-and-paste criticism, as the South Korean director so habitually repeats himself from film to film that analysis boils down to rehashing familiar concerns and plot points and then parsing minute shifts in tone and perspective. That situation, alas, doesn’t radically change with In Another Country, which distinguishes itself from its 12 feature-length predecessors by featuring a European female protagonist in the form of the mesmerizing Isabelle Huppert.
Unfortunately, that’s more or less all the innovation to be found in Hong’s latest, which otherwise finds the director content to trot out his usual devices: a narrative that’s self-consciously broken into segments that comment upon or reflect each other; characters who are filmmakers; self-absorbed men boozing on soju; cross-gender jealousies and communication breakdowns; and sudden zooms into and out of immaculately composed close-ups. Hong’s formal prowess remains formidable, and those zooms continue to be lively expressions of the emotional swings of his mixed-up players. The problem, however, is one of staleness. To indulge in the same tropes in the service of the same themes feels less and less like a method of constant re-examination than merely a refusal to develop ideas in fresh or unexpected ways.
In Another Country’s triptych is framed as a series of drafts by a Hong-proxy screenwriter (Jung Yumi) that play on the same premise. All feature Huppert as a woman named Anne who’s visiting the Korean seaside town of Mohan for a getaway, during which time she comes into contact with a man (Kwon Hyehyo) and his pregnant wife (Moon Sori), an outgoing lifeguard (Yu Junsang), and (appearing in one story apiece) her filmmaker lover (Moon Sungkeun) and a professor friend who sits her down with a monk. Anne is at first a single filmmaker, then the two-timing spouse of a businessman, and finally a cuckolded wife, inspiring varied reactions from those around her—suspicion, lust, disrespect, admiration.
Across the three tales, Anne has analogous experiences: she’ll meet Junsang’s lifeguard on the beach and ask for directions to a nearby lighthouse in one story, and then in another, strike up a conversation with a young woman and join her on a shopping trip. The language and culture barriers between English- and Korean-speaking individuals recur as often as do outbursts of romantic envy, but Hong’s treatment of these disconnections between people is so light that—though the material boasts his usual wispy comedy, born from the fumbling anxieties and insecurities of wayward souls—the proceedings feel like the inconsequential doodling of an artist with a one-track mind.
Still, In Another Country occasionally sparkles thanks to Huppert, who carries herself with a confidence that borders on radiance and yet also laces that poise with troubled loneliness and longing. Like a musician attempting to remake the same song with slightly different notes, Huppert reveals layers of emotions that surprisingly harmonize across the entirety of the film. The charming self-assuredness she exudes when the Anne of the first tale rebuffs a man’s request for a kiss gives way to a later Anne succumbing, in a foolish drunken bid for companionship, to an obvious come-on from the same gentleman.
Such synchronicities abound, all of them dramatized from slightly different visual and narrative vantage points to highlight the multitudinous possibilities of Hong’s conceit. Yet, at this stage of his career, to what end? Having tread this once fertile ground into dust, Hong presents neither novel insights nor compelling characterization. The action is beautifully shot, full of delicate, inviting compositions that reverberate with dynamic spatial arrangements amplifying his situations’ internal and interpersonal tensions. But the film is also incapable of moving past routine and convention to uncover, much less plumb, the thornier issues of confused desire and stunted male maturity that undergird his cinema.