By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 22, 2012 at 9:00AM
Heaviness tends to dominate the Cannes Film Festival, and this year is no different. Death ("Amour"), doubt ("The Hunt"), losing limbs ("Rust And Bone") and religious fanaticism ("Beyond The Hills") are just some of themes that have cropped up so far as we get to the halfway point of the fest. And while Hong Sang-soo's "In Another Country" won't win any points for examining tough subject matter, the deceptively simple film is a decent breath of fresh of air in a lineup of Important Movies.
The ever prolific Sangsoo marks his latest outing by teaming up with his first "star," in French actress Isabelle Huppert, and uses it to his sly and comic advantage. "In Another Country" is broken up into three segments, with Huppert playing a different character named Anne in each, who winds up speaking English to help communicate with the locals as she visits Mohang, South Korea. In the first part, Anne is a French director visiting a friend, in the second she's a married woman who comes to South Korea to have an affair, and in the last she's a rich divorcee who comes to the country to see an old pal and get over her divorce. As you might already be able to tell, there are some connections in each of the three parts in terms of character, but each story is separate and allows every Anne to fully take shape as a distinct being, with Huppert flexing some impressing acting muscle to get the job done.
The first part is easily the most enjoyable with the film director Anne finding herself at the center of wanted and unwanted attention from two different guys: Jongsoo (Hyehyo Kwon) a married director with whom she once shared a kiss, and a local lifeguard played by Jungsang Yu, who is so taken with Anne's beauty, he improvises a song about her in one of the comic segment's funniest bits. The second part is a bit more serious with Anne now killing time as her lover is late meeting her in Mohang. And the last showcases a more entitled Anne, looking to find understanding as to why her life and marriage seem to be falling apart. Each of these stories feature supporting characters (Sook Park, Sori Moon and Yumi Jung), and these are all part of screenplays being written by Wonju (Jung playing another character) at the beginning of the film, and we see these stories imagined. Got that?
If it all sounds a bit meta, it kind of is, but thankfully Sangsoo never gets too lost in his own self-referential narrative. Instead, he seems to make the goal of keeping things entertaining the first priority, and it mostly works. The initial segment is by far the most successful, wildly funny (thanks to Jungsang Yu who earns huge belly-laughs) and just plain enjoyable of the lot. Oddly enough, it's the least fish-out-of-water of the scenarios the film plays with, and yet it's the strongest piece. And thus it's too bad it's immediately followed by the worst piece (relatively speaking), a painfully slow shift to drama that doesn't quite work, though the final piece is a nice rebound, bringing back the playfulness of the first part and balancing it with the drama of the second part.
As we were leaving the theater, we overheard another critic dismissing "In Another Country" as "slight" but we would strongly disagree. What Sangsoo presents here is a quasi-"Sliding Doors," showing how much our lives can change and be affected by the subtle choices we make from our careers to who we sleep with. Granted, it's nothing new, but with three characters named Anne, recurring props and gags in each part including a broken beer bottle on a beach, a visit to an outdoor BBQ, a search for a lighthouse and a small sunshower, Sangsoo is making it clear what kind of idea he's trying to explore.
So, in the end, the latest from the prolific helmer is not so much slight as is it light, charming and funny by equal turns, with a pretty terrific performance by Huppert who seems to be having a lot of fun with the part(s). And within its own structural framework, and with a limited set of demands that it has to play to, "In Another Country" satisfyingly succeeds on its own terms. [B-]