Cannes Film Festival: The Korean Woody Allen, and an Iranian Game-Changer


After operating at maybe 75 percent of its potential for almost its
first full week, on Sunday the Cannes Film Festival kicked into full
auteurist gear, with the premieres of three formally audacious new works
from three contemporary international art film stars: Michael Haneke’s Amour (which we already discussed); In Another Country, from Korean master of comic romantic disaster Hong Sang-soo; and Like Someone in Love, the baffling, thrilling, Tokyo-set latest from Iranian neo-realism pioneer Abbas Kiarostami.

Thinly framed as a dramatization of screenplay being written by a
young woman in an attempt to distract herself from a family crisis too
incredible to cope with (“So these things really happen,” she says.
“What am I doing here?”), In Another Country consists of three
short stories, unrelated to one another but extremely similar, featuring
the same actors playing different characters but doing more or less the
same things. In each, a different French woman played by Isabelle
Huppert — one a filmmaker, one the cheating wife of a businessman, one a
depressed recent divorcee — spends a few days in the same
unspectacular seaside tourist trap, where she has similar,
quasi-romantic, sometime drunken encounters with two Korean men. In each
vignette, the woman is pursued inappropriately, leading to several
warnings about “that kind of Korean man.”

“That kind of Korean man” is writer-director Hong Sang-Soo’s
speciality. The repeating of story elements within a film presented as
an evolving art work/attempt at catharsis constitutes an acknowledgement
of Hong’s own tendency to work through his ongoing issues through
constant repetition with key variations. Throughout his body of work,
the same basic events over and over again: a seemingly mild-mannered
man, often a film director, travels to a town, usually somewhere he’s
been before; he drinks too much and obsesses over a woman; often he ends
up hooking up with a different woman, or maybe there are two women who
bear an uncanny resemblance to one another (played by the same actress).
His professional struggles are often acknowledged (sometimes he claims
to be on a hiatus from filmmaking), and yet everywhere he goes, he’s
recognized by young, pretty girls — establishing a power relationship
which makes the main male character’s inability to rationally control
his desire all the more louche. Nighttime passions are quickly brushed
aside come morning. Locations and situations are revisited. Mistakes are
made, and then made again, and again, and again. Dreams/imaginings and
waking/real space flow into one another without immediately evident
demarcation. All of this is presented with a very specific tone, often
at once deadpan comic and melancholic, self-deprecating and
self-aggrandizing. They’re extremely self-aware films about narcissism.

That Hong does the same thing over and over again — and that what he
does is examine a certain type of man’s inability to learn from his
mistakes, particularly where sex is involved — makes Hong kind of the
Korean equivalent of Woody Allen. But where Allen has turned repetition
into a better-than-break-even brand, Hong has a cult following within a
certain cinephile set (myself included), but his many films (he’s
produced an average of one feature per year since 2007) have never been
commercial prospects, in Korea or elsewhere, not even within the
specialized arthouse market. His last few haven’t found significant
theatrical distribution in the States; 2010’s Oki’s Movie and 2011’s The Day He Arrives,
which both recently screened for a week in New York, aren’t currently
scheduled to show in LA at all. The presence of Huppert in this one
suggests an interest in branching out beyond the cult faithful–she’s
known to arthouse audiences in ways in which Hong’s usual Korean actors
(some of whom repeat from film to film, natch) are not. But as an
outsider to his world and as an extremely gifted actress who nails
Hong’s target of pathos rising off of goofball sex farce, her presence
also allows Hong to not just cop to, but actually interrogate some of
his favorite themes from point-blank range in a way in which I’ve never
seen him do before (I’ve seen his eight most recent features). There’s
one scene in which one of the Huppert characters seeks guidance from a
monk. She asks, “What is love for you?” And he answers, “Something you
will have to do forever.” To her follow-up, “What is sex?”, he responds,
“Something I will have trouble with until I die.” That’s the driving
contradiction of Hong’s work in a nutshell, and the transparency of it
is weirdly poignant.

In Another Country may take Hong’s signature style and concerns
to a new level, but it’s still well within what we expect from a Hong
Sang-Soo film. The great surprise of Cannes thus far, Abbas Kiarostami’s
Like Someone in Love, is identifiable as a Kiarostami joint in
a couple of keys ways — mainly, that it’s conversation-based, and a
big chunk of it consists of long takes of people riding in cars — but
in terms of tone and subject matter, it’s nothing if not unexpected. The
film traces less-than a day in the life of Akiko, a college
student/call girl who, in the film’s first scene, tells both boyfriend
and pimp that she can’t do what they’re asking of her because she needs
to study and see her visiting grandmother. Much of the scene consists of
a long tableau shot of a bar from Akiko’s point of view — immersing us
in her world for awhile before we actually see her face. Once we do, it
soon becomes evident that she lacks the ability to really stand up to
the men in her life in any substantive way. And sure enough, soon she’s
in a cab on the way to a client’s house, listening to a half dozen
voicemail messages from her grandmother on the ride.

That client is Takeshi, a retired professor at the college where
Akiko is studying sociology (and doing so without conviction; in one of
the film’s key conversations, she admits to confusing Darwin and
Durkheim on an exam). Takeshi wants to wine and dine his young date; as
she tries to rush along the bedroom portion of the evening, the older
man stalls. She falls asleep, and in the morning he drives her to class,
where both are confronted by the boyfriend we previously heard Akiko
lying to. The film ends with a shock and a jolt, an indication that
facades have literally come crashing down — and then a cut to black.
Much of the audience at last night’s press screening (many of whom
waited for an hour or more in pouring rain to get into the theater)
greeted that abrupt conclusion with laughter — some because they
apparently thought what just happened was a punchline; other laughs
heralded impending boos.

As much as it takes mistaken and appropriated identity as a subject (not unlike Kiarostami’s last film, Certified Copy), Love‘s
own enigmatic, constantly shifting generic identity is at least as
compelling as any of its actual content (and I was pretty enraptured
throughout, though sometimes mostly by aesthetics — the look is
gloriously polished). The movie, which gets its title from a song sung
by Ella Fitzgerald which plays during Takeshi and Akiko’s date, is
infused with a jazzy melancholy, not least in the stunning taxi scene.
But it’s also a kind of screwball comedy, and kind of a noir — both
genres rich with playacting. I’m not going to pretend I fully “get”
exactly what Kiarostami is up to here — if anything I’ve seen here
deserves more brain space than I have available to give it during in the
middle of the festival marathon, it’s this — but I was pleasantly
disoriented throughout, and I thought the film’s final moment was

Although some are predicting that Amour has the 2013 Best
Foreign Language Oscar on lock, to measure Cannes selections such as
Haneke’s, Hong’s and Kiarostami’s for their Hollywood crossover
potential is pretty misguided. All three films have and will continue to
have detractors because they’re so dedicated to scrambling an
audience’s expectations, and thereby redefining what a film can be or
do. And that obliteration of expectations is exactly what we should
expect to get at this festival.