Isabelle Huppert in Latest Hong Sang-soo

6 Min Read

Like makgeolli — Korea’s unique fizzy, fermented, cloudy-white rice wine — the films of director Hong Sang-soo are an acquired taste. Fortunately for him, many film programmers at repertory houses and festivals beyond South Korea love the peculiar handmade, improvisational flavor of his work, with its complicated emotional entanglements and near primitive levels of craftsmanship. The last feature of his to premiere at the Berlinale, In Water, wasn’t even in focus, although Hong insists that was deliberate, to reflect the fuzziness of its creatively blocked film director protagonist.

Thankfully, his latest, A Traveler’s Needs, a competitor for the Golden Bear this year, is not only in focus, it’s also rather watchable, even for diehard Hong-skeptics. Partly that’s thanks to the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role (her third collaboration with Hong, after In Another Country and Claire’s Camera), playing Iris, a mysterious Frenchwoman with eccentric habits. Huppert is perfectly suited to the task, well-versed as she is in the art of playing dainty psychopaths. Not that there’s anything obviously psychotic about Iris, apart from her enthusiasm for playing the recorder very badly in public parks, a habit that, this being a Hong film, is never explained.

A Traveler’s Needs

The Bottom Line

Making it up as it goes along.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Lee Hyeyoung, Kwon Haehyo, Cho Yunhee, Ha Seongguk
Director/screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo

1 hour 30 minutes

Nor do we know why or how Iris has ended up in Seoul. But here she is, a woman of a certain age who knows how to be imperious and commanding when needed or girlish and flirtatious, as required. She’s a manic pixie dream madame, capable of inspiring people to do her bidding, no matter how odd. She may be a confidence woman or a ghost or just a lonely expat making things up as she goes along. Who knows?

First met having a walk with Isong (Kim Seungyun, who featured in Hong’s last two, In Water and its successor In Our Day), their conversation mostly in English, Iris keeps probing the young woman about the way she feels about things. Isong shows Iris a monument with a poem carved on to it written by Isong’s own late father, and Iris writes down a few sentences in French on an index card that sound like heightened, stylized versions of the broken thoughts Isong just spoke. This, it turns out, is a new way Iris has invented to teach French: give her students lines to recite like poems that supposedly will resonate more deeply with them than the usual, où est la bibliothèque?-style banalities.

Iris’ next pair of students, husband Haesoon (Hong-regular Kwon Haehyo) and wife Wonju (Lee Hyeyoung), are slightly less pliable and open to Iris’ newfangled method. Shouldn’t they get a textbook, Wonju wants to know? Nevertheless, her responses to Iris’ questions are eerily similar to Isong’s answers, describing the same mix of pride and self-doubt when she gives a spontaneous musical performance. Haesoon, on the other hand, seems to just be happy to have an excuse to start drinking the good makgeolli they have in the house when Iris expresses enthusiasm for the liquor.

In the film’s last sequence, Iris returns to the apartment of Inguk (Ha Seongguk, another member of Hong’s ad hoc repertory company), where she’s been living for a while. It’s not quite clear whether she and Inguk are bed buddies or just roommates, but they do a lot of cooing at each other, coquettishly in the case of Iris, about their special friendship. And yet, in a manner that recalls classic French stage farce but done with long slow takes, Inguk is not yet ready to introduce Iris to his mother Ranhee (Ha Jinwha) when the latter drops in suddenly to look in on her boy, so Iris has to sneak out the door when mom’s not looking.

Given no one is a novelist or a poet or a filmmaker here, this represents a bit of an adventure for Hong beyond his usual milieu. That said, this is still profoundly slight stuff, thin and ineffable as mist, that doesn’t really have much of a point apart from passing a bit of time and creating content for film festivals with a taste for the more recherché arthouse fare. But heck, at least it’s in focus.

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