IndieLisboa 2024 review: A Traveler’s Needs (Hong Sang-soo)

“Hong Sang-soo portrays the human condition with unusual clarity. That it’s also one of his breeziest films is a testament to the director’s craft, his grace.”

In the past few years, Hong Sang-soo has developed a cinema of repetition. Some have called these films geometric in nature, finding mathematical playfulness in symmetry and echo, dramaturgical equations that express odd narrative shapes. But, while this description seems supported by the director’s output, it also feels insufficient. It further strikes one as too cold to encompass the bittersweet warmth of such works as In Front of Your Face or the architectural Walk Up. No matter how much Hong might dabble in structuralist experiment, his films reach toward a humanist sensibility where the exploration of characters and their connections supplants form. Indeed, if there’s an unavoidable critique one can make of recent Hong it is that formal properties have been neglected. We find finesse in composition, the disruptive zoom, and an occasional touch of monochrome, but for the most part the audiovisual presentation is, in itself, a passive repetition of tried-and-true techniques. In Water is an outlier, and even then, the formal strategy teeters on the edge of a winking provocation. It’s a test of how whittled down a film’s look can become before it precludes the audience from accessing the behavioral portraiture at the center of it.

So, if not geometrical, what does one call the prolific director’s work? You could look for clues in the narratives themselves, studying how Hong’s creations interact with their environments and each other, how they articulate themselves and make sense of life’s nonsense. The obvious answer would be cinema as cinema, the Occam’s razor response that re-thinks the artist’s work as a meta-textual self-reflection. It’s a tempting conclusion considering just how many of Hong’s characters dabble in the film industry, not to mention the propensity for director stand-ins like the ones Kwon Hae-hyo tends to play. However, that seems too surface-level for a filmography whose simplicity is a pleasant façade. Looking deeper, a sense of musicality emerges, and if you go deeper still, some other depurated concepts rise above the rest. Hong Sang-soo’s cinema is music and poetry; it’s literature that studies language and its ultimate function. Essentially, it’s art concerned and eager to problematize communication through cinematic semantics.

In that sense, the director’s Silver Bear-winning A Traveler’s Needs is akin to a treatise and thesis, a culmination of the master’s recent work that showcases oft-explored themes in such direct terms that they’re impossible to miss. Yet, there’s no doctrine nor the portentous sound of a manifesto – the mind struggles to imagine a Hong film for which those descriptors would be accurate. Instead, we’re in the realm of light comedy, a refreshing summer breeze whispering its way across a lazy afternoon. Isabelle Huppert is at the heart of it, returning to the director’s oeuvre after the delights of In Another Country and Claire’s Camera. Here, she is Iris, who we meet as she visits a younger woman in Seoul, talking awkwardly in a polyglot patchwork of French and English while audiotapes and scribbled notes change hands. Through context clues, one is led to understand their relationship as that of teacher and student, with Huppert taking on the role of pedagogue. Not that Iris has any training, mind you, or that her method of teaching French obeys the rules of reason.

As will happen again with different scene partners, during an impasse in the conversation, the student wanders toward an instrument and starts playing music to the foreigner. Halfway through, in a daze of disinterest verging on open rudeness, the Frenchwoman distances herself from the sound and goes outside to smoke. In the awkward aftermath, she’ll inquire about her pupil’s feelings during their performance, insisting her way through the pleasantries that dominate the rituals of polite conversation, digging deeper like an archeologist searching for treasure buried beneath the chit-chat. By the end, Iris distills the findings into poetic notes. They are a French translation that transfigures what each person said in an apparent bid at honesty, the written words truer than truth. Though perhaps it’s not the student’s truth but the teacher’s oblique introspection. According to Iris’s instructions, the student should take the notes and read aloud, repeating them until they’ve found themselves moved by their meaning. Rather than having her clients learn a foreign language, she wants them to feel it first.

Overall, it’s an odd methodology for someone whose every interaction tends to devolve, at some given point, into mechanical discomfort. Though maybe it’s a mere manifestation of her invasive conversational skills, renamed as teaching for profit. Whatever the case, wherever she goes, Iris turns the moment into a comedy of errors, complete with bursts of fake tittering so outrageous you can’t help but laugh along. Hong films these scenes in long takes, as if seating the audience with the characters around a coffee table. We’re made to feel like part of the conversation, partaking in it just as Iris partakes – again and again – in cigarettes and makgeolli. The director’s penchant for the fixed camera and a medium-wide purview also results in the juxtaposition of parallel action, sometimes overlapping dialogue in different languages or the effort to convey a given text’s meaning across idioms. For instance, the second time we find Iris and her clients before a rock monument, Hong stages three simultaneous readings of the same poem. One person reads the original Korean in silence. Another reads it aloud in the same language. Finally, Iris stands to the side, murmuring a Google translation she gets from a borrowed phone. Though united by the words of a beautiful poet who died too young, the characters aren’t in harmony or common understanding.

Failures of communication abound, with Iris becoming increasingly cypher-like without ever turning into a complete puzzle. She’s too demonstrative for it, a performance often defined by the varying levels of listening with which Isabelle Huppert proves herself a voracious scene partner. She can make a meal out of every morsel she’s given, even when Iris seems clocked out of the conversation. But such considerations lead the viewer into another conundrum. Hong’s characters are often in conversation with each other, and it’s through their dialogue that one gets to know them. With Iris, though, those interactions tend to be variations on a talk that’s already happened, further depersonalized by their nature as a service she’s paid to provide. And those interactions only evidence how slippery she is, with Iris managing to disclose nothing about herself while illuminating our perception of whoever she’s sharing a scene with – even after she leaves the space, the camera persists in learning about these other folk living in the aftershock of Iris’s presence. Perhaps because of that, the woman is more revealing in solitude, alone with the camera when the conversation loses other intermediaries and becomes directly between the screen and the spectator. That’s how we get to know her. Well, can we ever know her, truly? Can we ever know another person? As it reaches its third and final act, A Traveler’s Needs finds a second figure to follow, though Iris remains at the center of the conversation. He’s In-guk, the Frenchwoman’s roommate played by Ha Seong-guk, and his mother has come for an unexpected visit. The talk between generations quickly devolves into an interrogation in which the older woman tries to understand what ties her progeny to the French teacher. Yet, as much as they talk, the two seem to run around in circles, never coming close to solving the not-quite-a-puzzle that is Iris. In the heat of the moment, it’s said that In-guk only likes who he imagines his roommate to be, not really knowing who she is or where she comes from. It isn’t a lie, but it flies over the picture’s point. Like In-guk, we can get Iris without knowing her, as we do with everyone who crosses our path. There are limits, of course, but so there are in every attempt at communicating, whether sharing ourselves or reaching for the other. Take music, which, like poetry, is a form of communication, making Iris’s questions after each song into an attempt at translating what the musicians were saying from an abstracting non-verbal register into the written word. In one last gesture, Hong does the reverse. He repeats a scene we haven’t yet seen but have heard described, translating what was exclusively expressed through spoken words into another form altogether. In this intersection of problematized communication and the unknowability inherent to personhood, Hong Sang-soo portrays the human condition with unusual clarity. That it’s also one of his breeziest films is a testament to the director’s craft, his grace.