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Hong Sang-soo A Traveler's Needs Review


A Traveler’s Needs | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

A Traveler’s Needs | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

The Traveler Has Come: Huppert Shines in Latest Collaboration with Sang-soo

Hong Sang-soo A Traveler's Needs ReviewThere are few directors who seem to rightly channel the comic side of Isabelle Huppert’s unique strangeness than the perennial Hong Sang-soo. Having worked together on the lovely In Another Country (2012), in which she stars as a quartet of different foreign women in South Korea, and the slight lark Claire’s Camera (2017), they’ve united once again for an equally delicate venture, A Traveler’s Needs. Once again, Huppert is a stranger in a strange land as a woman who has her own unique way of teaching French to a growing clientele of Korean women and enjoys having a few drinks (this time around for Sang-soo, the drink of choice is makgeolli, not soju). Inevitably, there’s always the charge of Sang-soo simply repeating himself, but this gently elliptical journey is chock full of oddly delightful moments and ambiguous energies.

As Iris, Huppert is something of an enigma, drifting around like a spritely creature who seems to have landed in South Korea for no real discernible reason. Her lack of background is also alarming for several women she encounters along the way, as both her skills and her intentions are logically questionable. The color green is her signifier, which suggests she is representative of new beginnings. We meet her in the midst of a lesson, wherein she asks her client Isong (Kim Seungyun) a series of questions meant to evoke emotional responses. Isong plays the piano, Iris asks how she feels about it, and writes a sentence in French on a card for her to practice, the intention being to create an emotional connection with the new language. Isong also shows Iris her father’s name carved into an inconspicuous place on a rock hewn monument he assisted in making, generating another sentence on another card.

Hong Sang-soo A Traveler's Needs Review

Thanks to Isong, Iris has been recommended to the wealthy Wonju (Lee Hyeyoung), meeting her at home, where husband Haesoon (Sang-soo stalwart Kwon Haehyo) appears to be intensely interested in Iris. The three of them drink makgeolli, while Wonju grills Iris about her teaching methods. It appears Iris never received an education to become a teacher, simply believing she has found a surefire way to successfully teach French in a country she seems intent on living in. Wonju plays the guitar for Iris, engendering the same exact series of questions and cards. A drunken stroll leads them to a poem carved into a rock by a dead poet, leading Iris to write more cards with her rather philosophical interpretation of the exchange.

Events get much darker when Iris returns to the flat she’s apparently been staying in for free with a young man named Inguk (Ha Seongguk), and the true nature of their relationship is not quite apparent. Their conversation is interrupted by the surprise arrival of his mother, Yeonhee (Cho Yunhee) who is perplexed to find an older woman in her son’s apartment. As Iris leaves to let mother and son converse, Yeonhee eventually becomes heated when she learns Iris is living there, and we learn Inguk picked her up in a nearby park, where she was playing a recorder quite badly.

Like many of Sang-soo’s films, the narrative details often seem painstakingly frivolous when outlined, but it’s the display of interaction and emotion which formulate a greater complexity. The mysteriousness of Iris is open to interpretation, but her repetitive line of questioning eventually begin to make sense as quandaries she’s experiencing herself, a woman who can’t play music very well and lays around on rocks desiring to make the same kind of eternal imprint on them as those she’s encountering on her perambulations. Eventually, these repetitions take on bizarrely comic tones, with the deadpan Huppert creating increasingly existentialist practice questions for her clients. “Who is the person inside of me making me so tired?”

Hong Sang-soo A Traveler's Needs Review

In her straw hat and espadrilles, wandering around drinking (and ordering bibimbap), Huppert adds another strange little feather to her filmography. Whether she’s sniffing Inguk’s door like a vampire or weirdly flirting with Haesoon, there are several moments of strange delight to be had in A Traveler’s Needs. However, the film’s best exchange arrives in the form of a combative Lee Hyeyoung who archly defies the vague explanations of Iris.

Reviewed on February 19th at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition section. 90 mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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