Some of his criticasters accuse Hong Sang-soo of basically making the same film over and over again. While there may be some truth in this, if he keeps making deliciously enjoyable films like In Another Country, I don’t see the problem. Clocking in at around an hour and a half, the film is separated into three segments of roughly the same length, in which three French women, all named Anne (and each played by Isabelle Huppert), battle with cultural differences in the Korean beach town of Mohang. The various Annes consist of a film director scouting for locations, traveling with a filmmaker friend and his pregnant wife; an expat married to a Korean man, but in town to have a fling; and a tourist trying to cross the bridge between Western and Eastern philosophy after her ex-husband left her for a Korean woman. The other characters they deal with are sometimes different, sometimes the same. The only constant in these three stories is a local lifeguard (immediate crowd favorite Yu Jun-Sang), the one person all three women build a rapport with, as they seem to be on the same wavelength.
The way the three stories are interwoven is intriguing. Certain scenes return, but played by other characters, dialogue is reused, and an umbrella miraculously makes it from one storyline to another. But every time there is the bond between the foreign woman and the lifeguard. The film continuously touches upon the cultural differences between East and West, and how they can hinder open communication. The only thing seemingly able to cross that gap is the unbiased and open attitude of this unnamed lifeguard. Every other form of communication comes off as awkward, either because of Korean prejudice or Western self-centeredness. In each story, the Korean characters talk among themselves while Anne is right there, often talking about her, and sometimes with disdain. Anyone who has visited a foreign country without knowing the language recognizes these incidents: the locals start speaking to each other, and you can’t help but think, Are they talking about me? According to Hong: yes!
But the foreigner is not painted in the best light either: each woman shows a certain selfishness and arrogance towards her Korean counterparts. An encounter between the tourist and a Buddhist monk is telling, presenting a subtle criticism of Western tourism: her desire to meet him doesn’t spring from true curiosity, but from the odd fascination people in the West sometimes have with Eastern philosophy, and their hope to find ‘enlightenment’ in it. When she finally does have a conversation with the monk, they are far from understanding each other, for which she, judging by her attitude, blames him.
Yet there is also attraction between the different worlds. In the first two stories, two Korean men have affairs (or at least try to) with their respective Annes, perhaps also a criticism by the director of the infidelity of Korean men and their attraction to Western women. Since in both cases the man is a filmmaker, this is probably Hong having a bit of fun at his own expense. But in the end, these women form a real bond with only one man, the friendly yet enigmatic lifeguard. Because of his limited English, their conversations are hilarious but without much depth, allowing them to connect on a more basic level. He is like a blank screen on which they can project their varying emotions. Through him they become more at ease with the place they’re in at this specific point of their lives, a point that differs for each of them, yet they all find a strange sort of solace in him.
Isabelle Huppert is in fine form as the three Annes, able to create three fully rounded women, each with her own characteristics: warm and affectionate in the first act, passionate and short-tempered in the second, and sad and searching in the third. As a whole, her ‘character’ is a reflection of life and the phases we all go through (though not necessarily in that order), and she plays each woman with exactly the requisite level of naturalism. In the supporting cast, Yu Jun-Sang is the obvious standout as the lifeguard, stealing every scene, even from Huppert. Other actors barely register, except perhaps for Kwon Hye Hyo as the philandering film director.
On the technical side, Hong keeps it deliberately simple, although he certainly knows where to place the camera and his actors to pique interest (just watch the trailer). Keeping it simple is the best way to communicate, for both the director and his subjects. Perhaps that’s why the opening credits were simply characters written in pen on paper.