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An Airy Hong Sangsoo Puzzle



Iris, the petite enigma at the center of “A Traveler’s Needs,” dresses at once to be noticed, and to disappear. Over a bright sundress, spattered all over with red and violet blossoms, she wears a cardigan of a most assertive, eye-searing green. It’s the grassy hue, in fact, of green-screen backdrops, as we notice when she fades into the foliage of a city park in full summer leaf, or is consumed by the paint job of a tennis court-like roof terrace. Nobody knows exactly where she has come from, beyond the clue of her thick French accent, and even she seems uncertain as to where she’s going: One imagines her, with that effects-friendly knitwear, being dropped into any number of imagined locations, and looking just as out of place as she does on the streets of Seoul.

But Iris is played, with typically curt, quizzical good humor, by Isabelle Huppert, so we feel like we know her a little better than we do. And so Hong Sangsoo’s latest short, shimmery comedy of the elusive human condition begins its game-playing, inviting the audience to fill in its blanks with the assumptions and judgments we typically make of strangers or superficial acquaintances — and offering us no eventual scoresheet whatsoever for our guesswork. If Huppert’s endearingly scatty, offhand performance lends proceedings a veil of comfy familiarity, however, “A Traveler’s Needs” nonetheless finds the indefatigable Korean auteur at his most puckishly cryptic. Finding new variations on the geometric structural folding that has marked such recent works as “Walk Up” and “In Our Day,” Hong somehow slips in even more ellipsis than usual.

We first encounter Iris in the sparsely furnished, amply sunlit home of Isong (Kim Seungyun), a sweetly diffident young woman, with the two engaged in a peculiar kind of questioning game. Isong plays a short piece at the piano, prettily enough, before Iris asks her benignly what she feels as she plays. An initial benign answer (“Happy”) is pushed, as Iris keeps repeating the question, into more nuanced detail, and finally a complete emotional reversal: No, playing the piano doesn’t make Isong feel happy at all, but aggravated at her inadequate skill. We surmise that she has hired Iris for French lessons, as the two converse in a halting patchwork of French and English. Whether the questioning — a calm pressing for candor that feels increasingly invasive — is one of Iris’ teaching techniques, or her own conversational inclination, is something we must decide for ourselves.

Whatever the case, it’s a ploy she uses again and again, in a series of encounters that structurally mirror each other, while showing fine shifts in mood from Iris herself. She doesn’t appear to be a professional teacher, with her haphazard walk-and-talk lessons seemingly an improvised way of supporting herself in a city where she knows nobody, and where she has no evident reason to be. The film’s events appear to unfold over the course of an afternoon, but perhaps these vignettes gesture to the general, ambling drift of Iris’ routine. A second lesson is with Wonju (Lee Hyeyoung, the marvelous lead of Hong’s “In Front of Your Face”), and replays some of the dialogue and dynamics of the first, this time with a more complicit understanding between two women of an equivalent age.

As with Isong, Iris’ politely needling interrogation of Wonju yields poignant memories of family and childhood, though Iris returns these with her own melancholic reflections on mortality. The repetition of scenes and setups with subtle, outcome-altering differences has long been a hallmark of Hong’s work — most elaborately and effectively in 2015’s “Right Now, Wrong Then” — though here, the technique emerges from a character with the same fixation. Conversations are recorded and recycled, at least nominally in the name of language improvement.

Yet the longer we spend with Iris, the more she recedes from us, culminating in a nervily funny series of exchanges at the apartment she shares, on entirely inscrutable terms, with mild-mannered young student Inguk (Ha Seongguk). The arrangement is a confounding mystery, especially, to Inguk’s mother — who voices her bewilderment at this opaque Frenchwoman with a directness that everyone else politely avoids. Inguk cites Iris’ “enlightenment” and “sincerity” as points in her favor. “Isn’t that just because she’s old?” his mom snaps back. “How can you like someone you don’t even know?” Yet it turns out you can: Hong and Huppert draw us into the strange, magnetic backstory of this woman with no history and no obvious future, appealing to our most inquisitive instincts for people-watching and story fabrication, as we warm at least to whoever we imagine her to be.

As delicately played by Huppert, Iris is hardly a cypher: Her face routinely clouds over with surges of anxiety, or breaks into beatific delight, so we know — in line with her favorite, much-repeated question — what she’s feeling, if never exactly what she’s thinking. (Which is the greater tell?) And she seems happily unbothered by what others think or feel about her. Some of the film’s loveliest scenes show Iris contentedly alone, eating bibimbap in a quiet café or — alcohol of course being the lifeblood of this director’s cinema — getting woozily drunk on makgeolli, the milky rice wine that has drawn out some rich confessions in Hongs past, but here induces a soft calm. Iris seems at once blissful and sorrowful, or maybe neither, given the projection that “A Traveler’s Needs” requires of us. Either way, she appears to exist almost exclusively in the present tense. Hong’s sly, slippery oddity suggests there are worse ways to live.


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