At the start of In Another Country, the newest dramedy by Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo, we meet a Korean film student distraught about a situation involving her uncle.
"He's not even a human being," she insists to her mother, who, in turn, pledges to fix the problem.
This promise does not satisfy the young woman. To calm her nerves, she must write a script. It seems the only way to dull the pain and start processing her emotions. It's also a way for Sang-soo to examine some of the illusions filmmakers create on the screen.
The script isn't one story but a trio of 30-minute episodes set in the same Korean town. Each episode stars the same actors, but some of them play different characters in every go-round. French arthouse luminary Isabelle Huppert portrays three French visitors named Anne. Determining who is playing whom - and what makes each Anne unique - can take some time and patience. The anxiety and confusion that result are useful, though. They approximate how many people feel when they arrive in a country where they know almost no one and barely speak the language. They also help the audience empathize with Anne, whether she's in South Korea for work, sex or spiritual healing.
Huppert serves as the film's anchor. Charming and gorgeous, she's hard to look away from as she smokes cigarettes on balconies and strolls down long roads with eye-catching props - a bold red dress, a delicate umbrella. At the rooming house where she's staying, her hosts make painfully polite conversation in English, then rail at one another in Korean. Anne can sense the tension that surrounds her, but hardly anyone will acknowledge it, even when she's committed an infraction, presumably because she's a guest.
An obsession with beauty also complicates matters. Male characters compliment Anne's looks almost constantly, while she claims, unconvincingly, that the dreary seaside village is stunning. All three Annes search for one of the town's few scenic landmarks, a small lighthouse, which leads them into awkward, humorous situations. The best of these moments involve a lifeguard (Yoo Jun-sang), who, in one scene, produces a "small lighthouse" that is actually a camping lantern. And when the second Anne - a nervous married woman on a weekend fling with her boyfriend - finds the real lighthouse, she utters "beautiful" over and over again. The word seems like a sigh of relief for both her and the screenwriter from the opening scene.
Throughout In Another Country, Sang-soo reminds us how cameras can enhance beauty or diminish it, and how editing is just as important to storytelling as creating. Though the acting and visuals emanate naturalism, abrupt zoom-ins shatter the illusion of reality. Likewise, repetition of certain elements from story to story - a broken soju bottle, an impromptu shopping trip - emphasize filmmakers' power to remix, recycle and reinvent. Anne doesn't control her own destiny; the person who created her does. Another recurring image - Anne walking down the yellow line that bisects the main road - hints at the boundaries filmmakers construct between their characters and the audience.
While these concepts aren't groundbreaking, they're enjoyable to watch if you can tolerate feeling disoriented, anxious and perhaps a bit suspicious of filmmakers' intentions.