22 February 2013

Three Times: In Another Country

Three repeated sounds

1. Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country is quiet but rarely silent. It begins with handwritten credits and the sound of pen on paper is, allow me to say, recursive. The basic premise is that a desultory young Korean woman is marooned in a less-than-spectacular village on the Korean seaside. To pass the time she begins sketching film scenarios in which the town is visited by a Frenchwoman, Anne, who is played by Isabelle Huppert (the probable reason a dozen or so of us gathered to see the new film by a Korean director who is prolific but previously unknown to WTT).

I use the term "sketch" deliberately--the three segments that the screenwriter pens have a pleasant, dashed-off quality--and we see the pen on the page each time she begins again. In one instance, Anne herself writes a note in the broken English that is the film's lingua franca and the climax (if a film such as In Another Country has one) involves a monk peppering Anne with questions and drawing her replies.

2. The action takes place around the amusingly-named West Blue Hotel, and movement is peripatetic, making footwear important. In her iterations, we see Anne in flip flops, flats and short-heeled sandals--we hear her walking over gravel, asphalt and sand on her way to the beach (which is reliably overcast). The gentle clip of her gait is often overwhelmed by the racket the busybody lifeguard (Yu Junsang) in his own flip flops. These sounds are so noticeable because there are only brief snippets of non-diegetic music in the interstices of the film--without the sound of footfalls the town might be totally hushed.

3. The footwear goes silent upon reaching the waves of the beach. The surf is as sleepy as the rest of the town, lisping at the gravelly, green bottle-studded sand. Anne is often on her way to a small lighthouse to which she has incomplete directions. Its failure to appear does not much bother her (she also waits for a delayed lover, a filmmaker played by Moon Sungkeun), and she takes more solace than most would in the plain grey horizon and the wavelets rolling over her tired feet.

(If this were a Four Times column, I'd talk about the sounds of flames, from lighters and barbeque, crackling all over the film.)

Three reasons Isabelle Huppert is the greatest

1. She has the great gift of being herself, not "disappearing into" another character. She's intelligent, witty, frustrated and frustrating, impetuous, commandingly sexy at 60. I recently had a conversation with my barber about the Oscars--he told me, admiringly, that in his favorite film of the year you do not see Daniel Day-Lewis, you see Lincoln (please picture my half-masked grimace and eyeroll). I do not wish to go to the movies to see historical figures like Lincoln or Margaret Thatcher or a thousand others. I want to see movie stars--even DDL or Meryl Streep--but rarely do.

But I seem to always find Isabelle Huppert. Check out her list of roles, 112 and counting. There's no time for her to go into seclusion for years practicing a silly accent over which critics can ejaculate--that must be how Lincoln spoke! Spielberg is all about historical accuracy!--because she's actually making movies. I've seen a small fraction of her work but look at how many classic films and/or classic performances there are in just the last 15 years. Merci pour le chocolat, The Piano Teacher, Ma mere, I Heart Huckabees, Gabrielle, White Material, Amour, In Another Country...

2. She smokes. All three versions of Anne light up multiple times and more power to her. In 2013 Hollywood, you're left to assume no women smoke. You never see it or, if you do, it's probably a sign that the woman is an uncontrollable nymphomaniac. And, in this film anyway, Huppert does not play an uncontrollable nymphomaniac.

3. Having gone through many types in her long, irresistible career, Huppert avails herself to a fresh subset of adoring oglers: Korean men. While Hong's camerawork is generally understated, occasionally he zooms in to Huppert as guilelessly as her Korean suitors. When invited into the lifeguard's tent she gives him a "noooo, that's okay" pleasantly reminiscent of Marge's reaction to Mike Yanagita's stilted but heartfelt flirtation in Fargo. On of Anne's fellow vacationers calls everyone "beautiful" but, as his wife pointedly attests, it doesn't always mean the same thing when he says it. He is eventually caught with Huppert on the shore (full of boats waiting for a tide that never seems to rise) and his excuse is both lame and accurate--he's "curious about some organisms" down there.

Three personal revelations about larger themes in cinema and life

1. I like recurrence, not interconnectedness. I found it delightful that the screenwriter appears as another boarder in the hotel, always going upstairs to get something helpful for Anne (like the umbrella that's so often useful in this off season Jersey Shore). There are neat cuts between sections, like one where Huppert and a pregnant Korean guest flip positions from balcony to street level. This is preferable to the "all the stories are connected!" sub-genre, which has its roots in great pictures like La ronde, but is also responsible for the absolute bottoming out of the Academy Awards: the Crash Best Picture victory.

In Another Country reminded me of Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August (which I've been dying to see again and is finally available on Netflix), in the way shots and sound cues are repeated the length of the film. The repetitions--of the hotel balcony at dawn, the village streets in the afternoon, the beach at dusk--from different angles and in different orders--mimic the sense of eternal recurrence we actually feel while we're alive, not the contrived connection of divergent subplots that a hack like Iñárritu finds clever.

2. I want to meet a monk. The final version of Anne is visited by a Buddhist monk. He is full of charming and challenging questions for Anne, who has "a thousand monkeys in her brain chattering all the time." With little preamble and almost shocking bluntness he makes his diagnosis: "you're miserable because you lie." He follows that with, "have you changed since you were a child?" To distract him, Anne asks if she can have the beautiful pen with which he sketches her. Of course she gets his Mont Blanc (which struck me as no less specific than the .38 extra fine gel pen I have with me at all times) as another sign of her irresistibility, but her only answer to his questions is to go for a walk.

The sequence reminded me of a visit from my youth, when a Franciscan monk (in full Friar Tuck regalia) came to speak to our 11th grade history class. He stood before a bunch of godless know-it-all teenagers and said that we must live as well as we can, even if we have not received the gift of faith. And I try, probably as unsuccessfully as Anne.

3. I want to be saved. At the moment Anne is most hopeless she finds herself, of course, at the sea. She stares in long shot into the grey horizon for a few beats, despondent, when the water is creased by the lifeguard, swimming in his frantic style. He gets out, passes Anne and they say to each other, "I know you," "I know you."

All of these things have been circling in my mind for weeks. This film seems to me much more than a trifle.