With all the serious, morbid narratives taking root of the festival imagination in places like Cannes, it’s refreshing to see an exceptional movie with a light touch and a very warm sense of humor. In Another Country, from Korean director Hong Sang-soo, is exactly that. It is the story of stories, an examination of how a narrative takes form and is altered and rearranged until it is the most effective.
A barely-seen Korean woman dictates these stories into a notepad. All of them star roughly the same cast of characters, though their roles and importance often change. Isabelle Huppert plays the main woman in all of them, always a wayward traveler in Korea looking around for a lighthouse and meaning. There is also the woman she is staying with, an attractive young lifeguard and various other acquaintances along the way.
Though the movie stars a French actress and is directed by a Korean man, most of it is in English. Despite this market advantage, it’s unlikely it will find a big audience in the United States because of its unusual narrative structure. It’s not hard to follow and it is often very funny, but American audiences rarely respond well to weird little movies that wear their heart on their sleeve.
Sang-soo’s unadorned visual style lets the pretty little Korean village’s natural beauty blend in effortlessly with the stories. The image of Huppert’s slightly different women walking along the same shore and bumping into the same people with different motivations really speaks to the way that movie characters are only as good as their narrative.
Whether she’s a venerable French film director, a wealthy housewife or a recently divorced wealthy housewife on holiday, Huppert brings crucial life to the fairly basic characters, all of them named Anne. Sang-soo merges the wonderfully funny script with welcome visual humor. Much of the humor is drawn from minor cultural and lingual misunderstandings. It is not the bitter xenophobia that manyRambo-esque action pictures but more curiosity-driven.
Anne is like a milder version of Poppy from Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, another whimsical little movie with something to say. She is inquisitive, persistent and unabashedly free-spirited; she can also be quite annoying. The best scene in the movie is a conversation in the third story between Anne and an old monk she requested to speak with. She is the divorcee, questioning the man about her life and her recent depression. The whimsy with which they come to the conclusion that life is a series of largely insignificant moments and let-downs is the closest it comes to drama.
Sometimes the movie lingers on its own cheeriness a little too long. It’s a very accessible film despite its structural experimentation, but a few too many of the conversations travel an overly-long road to nowhere. Though Anne is a character destined to forever wander, the stories sometimes exist a little too long to maintain the movie’s novelty. The movie’s true pleasure is watching the narrative’s overt and subtle shifts. It makes the movie imminently re-watchable, which is a huge asset in a foreign marketplace crowded with downers.