Hong Sang-soo may be contemporary cinema’s preeminent chronicler of the most common venal dis-ease of our time–the game that must be played between men and women because of our inability to communicate and form meaningful relationships. But drop his name at a cocktail party of cinephiles, and the first words most likely to be repeatedly mentioned would be “form” and “structure”. Perhaps because the strikingly lifelike nature of the dialogues in Hong’s films often go unnoticed by those unfamiliar with the Korean language, much of the Western critical focus has doted more on the innovative narrative structures. Curiously enough though, Hong’s most recent film, In Another Country, is his first attempt at a three-act narrative structure. Of course, Hong’s idea of the three-act narrative doesn’t consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead, it tells the essentially same story three different times.
This can be interpreted as a playful riff on what Nietzsche termed the “eternal recurrence.” In his Gay Science, Nietzsche described it as the following: “In an infinite universe, with no god to direct it, the finite experiences of human existence must necessarily repeat themselves eternally.” Hong’s films do not betray at all as to whether or not Hong believes in a god, but they do show that he believes in the inherently repetitive nature of human behavior.
In each of the three parts, a Frenchwoman named Anne–played by Isabelle Huppert whose ethereal presence epitomizes the idealized image that many Koreans hold of European women–who visits Korea and has a chance rendezvous with a much younger hunk of a lifeguard–played by the infinitely likable and earnest Yoo Jun-sang. In the first, Anne is a film director, in the second, a married woman visiting her Korean lover, and in the third, a recent divorcée whose ex-husband left her for a Korean woman. Of course, the three Annes are situationally different manifestations of the same metaphysical human being. And the three successive stories are one singular existential effort on Anne’s part to achieve self-realization.
As in all of Hong’s films except for his violence-laden debut The Day a Pig Fell into a Well, hilarity ensues whenever the two would–be-lovers try to communicate. The language barrier between the two, with English being the native language for neither Anne nor the lifeguard, results in some truly deft comedy that borders on Lubitsch-esque. This comedic element and the fact that Anne’s quest for self-edification results in a literal consummation makes this Hong’s most optimistic film to date. The film ends in a moment of elegant serendipity and pure mirth, as Anne finds the umbrella she had discarded in an earlier part of the triptych film just as the rain starts falling. It is the cinematic equivalent of the final piece completing a byzantine jigsaw puzzle. And she literally sashays away into the rain as any satisfied yet proper Frenchwoman should, with her back turned to the camera and hips swaying. In this and not another lifetime, but indeed in another country.