Isabelle Huppert is an enigmatic Frenchwoman in Korea in her latest collaboration with Hong Sangsoo

A Traveler's Needs

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘A Traveler’s Needs’

Dir/scr: Hong Sangsoo. South Korea. 2024. 90 mins

As in Hong Sangsoo’s 2012 three-parter Another Country, A Traveler’s Needs finds Isabelle Huppert as a Frenchwoman in Korea. She is Iris, a woman who make a living teaching French and, while never revealing much about herself, is uncannily talented at getting others to talk about themselves and their feelings; snippets of information which she then translates into poetic, philosophically insightful French. The art of translation – which goes hand in hand with the empathetic skills of the poet, or the psychotherapist – is very much at the heart of a film that plays cleverly with its three different languages (English, French, Korean).

Subtle and gently perplexing, but very satisfying indeed

Huppert once spoofed her own famously intense work ethic when guest-starring in French Netflix show Call My Agent!. In her episode, the actress was in trouble for shooting two movies at once – but the payoff was that she was also being discreetly followed by a Korean director with a camera, quietly filming her on the side for a third, no-budget feature. The joke was clearly a wink at Hong Sangsoo, possibly the only individual in cinema nearly as industrious as Huppert.

He now directs her for the third time, following In Another Country and the Cannes-set Claire’s Camera. This Berlin competition entry, his 31st feature, is manifestly Hong in every shot – which of his films is not? – but it is also one of his more enigmatic and alluring works. With Huppert involved, and dialogue mainly in English, it’s likely to get a little more international exposure than usual, notwithstanding its characteristic obliqueness.

Iris is first seen giving a young woman a French lesson, following an unusual – and, she reveals, entirely untested – method of her own devising. During their conversation in English, she coaxes out some clues to what her student is feeling, then writes down phrases in French on index cards for her to study, also providing a cassette recording. She later visits a middle-aged couple, both film executives, Wonju (Lee Hyeyoung) and her husband (Kwon Haehyo). Wonju shows some scepticism about Iris’s method, but the three nonetheless get along famously and go for a walk, during which Iris takes an interest in a verse carved on a stone. The index cards are handed over and Iris pockets her fee for the lesson, although the three of them have barely spoken a word of French.

Iris then goes to the flat of a young man, Inguk (Ha Seongguk), with whom she is staying; despite their age difference, it appears that they are at least very intimate friends. That is apparently why Iris makes herself scarce when Inguk gets a surprise visit from his mother (Cho Yunhee) who is increasingly puzzled by – and eventually furious about – her son’s relationship with a woman about whom he apparently knows nothing.

Indeed, we learn nothing about Iris – nothing about her past life, nor her present, nor what she’s doing in Korea in the first place. Which is where the film takes on a certain self-referential dimension: even if no-one knows a thing about Iris, the viewer probably knows plenty about Huppert, about her past roles in Hong’s films and countless others, and will be bringing that knowledge to A Traveler’s Needs.

The Call My Agent! gag might suggest that the super-prolific Hong just knocks off his films any old how. But, as ever, there is immensely precise craft at work in this film (although early scenes suggest a degree of loose, improvised limbering up). There is certainly a lot of subtle patterning here: three characters suddenly moved to give Iris a taste of their musical talents; two poems inscribed in stone, by 20th-century Korean writer Yoon Dongju; the curious use of a certain shade of green in Iris’s cardigan, her ballpoint pen and a flat roof on which her espadrilles emit comic squishing sounds.

Huppert plays it relaxed, by turns tender, calm and a touch impish, as when she sniffs out the aroma of a stew that Inguk’s mother is cooking. Her Iris is a still, but not quite blank centre around which the other performances revolve – the playoff between Hong Sangsoo long-timers Lee Hyeyoung and Kwon Haehyo as husband and wife, respectively commanding and a little dorky, and between Ha Seongguk and Cho Yunhee as the awkward Inguk and his possessive, emotionally fragile mother.

By the time several bottles of Korean alcohol have been quaffed – not soju this time, but cloudy rice wine magkeolli – A Traveler’s Needs reaches its quietly elusive ending via enigmatic editing and some decidedly off-key recorder playing. The viewer will not come away with any answers, but may retain a particular line of poetry that Iris translates: “My path is always a new path.” Hong Sangsoo fans would say that definitely applies to this director, even when the path seems strangely similar; in this case, the newness is subtle and gently perplexing, but very satisfying indeed.

Production company: Jeonwonsa Film Co Production

International sales: Finecut

Producer: Hong Sangsoo

Cinematography: Hong Sangsoo

Editor: Hong Sangsoo

Music: Hong Sangsoo

Main cast: Isabelle Huppert, Lee Hyeyoung, Kwon Haehyo, Cho Yunhee