In a comedic landscape where true, from the heart (or gut), laughs come once every blue moon, very few filmmakers have been able to craft true effective bits of chuckle-inducing cinema. Be it the rise of the “bro” comedy like The Hangover or the continual dumbing down of audiences thanks to trapped-in-suspended-adolescence comedies from the likes of Will Ferrell, modern American comedies have become empty voids where laughs used to be.
Thankfully, however, we still have foreign filmmakers to help us out.
Making his English language debut with a film entitled In Another Country, director Hong Sang-soo has cemented himself as not only one of today’s truly great auteurs (his 14th film debuted at this year’s Berlinale), but with Country, he proves himself as one of the film world’s truly great comedy directors. Opting for a quiet narrative, Sang-soo has crafted a truly touching comedy that while seeming to be void of any real conflict, seems to be ripped right out of classic French cinema in its narrative of misunderstanding.
Led by the truly incomparable Isabelle Huppert, the film follows the story of three separate French women, all played by the beloved actress, and all having their own life troubles. One is a filmmaker with a romantic connection to one of the locals, another is an adulterer meeting her lover and the other a divorce looking to get away and find herself, all trapped within a quaint picture more focused on the interpersonal relationships than anything aesthetically.
Hong Sang-soo is at the top of his game here, without seeming to truly push himself. Instead of amping up his aesthetic, he goes the opposite way, instead getting to as bare bones a sense of style as one could imagine. With zooms being the most frequent flight of fancy for the filmmaker here, Sang-soo instead opts to toy with narrative structure, something that proves to be quite rewarding for the viewer. Weaving the three narratives together by a connective tissue in the form of a young girl we are introduced to in the film’s opening moments, there is a naturalism and a vitality to the proceedings that isn’t nearly as common as it should be in modern cinema.
However, there is also immense drama here. Lacking anything resembling a truly visceral drama, the film isn’t without its heavier moments, be it the constant mention of a character’s drinking problem or the portrayal of trust the film puts on screen (be it in the form of various cheating men and women or even a monk). Often times followed up by a moment of levity, the drama is amplified, only to have the air ultimately taken right out of the situation. It is in these moments, the tonal shifts, that the film’s true colors are shown, and they are as bright and vibrant as the cinematography from the pair of Jee Yune-jeong and Park Hon-yeol.
But this is Isabelle Huppert’s show, and she absolutely steals it. Taking on three roles here, each feels as effortless and breathtaking as Sang-soo’s direction, finding Huppert allowing herself to spread her comedic wings and absolutely fly off the screen. She embodies each of her characters with a sense of truth that feels tactile and palpable, and her relationships with the people around her feel real. Be it her genuine appreciation for her friends, or the awkward moments where she’s unsure of what is being talked about around her and won’t rest until she knows for sure, Huppert’s performance(s) here are superb and offer a light alternative to many of her dramatic turns.
Tossed in with a solid supporting cast, this comedy of misunderstanding thrives on each and every performance, and the team of Kwon Hye Hyo, Jung Yu Mi, So-ri Moon and Yeo-jeong Yoon (just to name a few) really elevate the lighter material. Their interactions are full of heart and sometimes drama, and it is in these performances that the film really finds its legs.
Too bad Kino has neglected to put the film on Blu-ray, because this deserves at least a high definition transfer. One of Sang-soo’s strongest films visually, if not via any startling camera work, the photography here is visually inspired, with gorgeous outdoor sequences and a color scheme that pops off the frame. The DVD looks solid, but a Blu-ray could have turned this into an absolute must-own release. Also, there are no supplements to speak of, making this a harder sell at its current Amazon price tag of roughly $28. Comparatively, for $4 more, Criterion offers their recent Blu-ray of Brazil, a stacked release, on the site.
Costly price point be damned, fans of true, heartfelt comedies will find a lot to enjoy here. Far from a visceral laugh inducing picture, Hong Sang-soo’s film is the perfect type of picture for a rainy spring day. Full of laughs and the occasional moment of drama, this film is like a French classic that never saw the light of day. The definition of enjoyable, this film is.