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'A Traveler's Needs' Is a Perfectly Offbeat Film from Hong Sang-soo



A French woman sits on a bed while a Korean man plays the keyboard.
Courtesy of the Berlin International Film Festival / Jeonwonsa Film Co.

Whenever Hong Sang-soo comes out with a new film, you can expect it to be another variation on his signature low-key filmmaking style. What’s remarkable about his films, of course, is the effect he produces with each new variation. Such is the case with his newest film, Yeoheangjaui pilyo (also called A Traveler’s Needs), which excels in many of Hong’s usual ways, but not without some satisfying surprises along the way. 


The film is an offbeat character study of a mysterious French woman in Korea named Iris, played by the legendary Isabelle Huppert. This marks her third collaboration with Hong, and the actress is evidently at home in the director’s style. Iris is introduced to us as a French teacher giving a lesson to the pleasant, though somewhat naive, Isong (Kim Seung-yun). What starts as a normal enough conversation between teacher and student soon builds a quirky energy of sorts as we see her atypical pedagogy: no utilisation of textbooks, relying on flashcards, and taking note of and translating some of Isong’s more emotional confessions when she talks about her father. 


During a press conference at Berlinale, Hong recalled conceiving a teaching method for Iris wherein discovery, rather than straight learning, was paramount, and that Iris’ approach to her lessons with Isong would give us insight into the characters. That is evident from the very opening stages of the film: Iris’ characterisation and particular position in life are articulated with characteristic ease and clarity by Hong. What’s more, she is shown to enjoy wandering the city, lying on rocks, and indulging in makgeolli (a milky, sparkling rice wine). In fact, drink and food are utilised throughout Yeoheangjaui pilyo as a common ground of enjoyment between characters; Iris and the Korean characters’ shared affinity for makgeolli and specific cultural dishes helps ease them into conversation with each other.


What causes rifts in Iris’ relationships with those around her are her specific methods. Lee Hye-young is particularly memorable as a prospective client of hers, who responds to each of Iris’ statements with a seemingly pleasant, but clearly passive-aggressive, manner as she tries to figure out if she’s being scammed or used as a guinea pig in the French woman’s pedagogical system.


A pivotal dynamic in the film involves Iris and a younger man, Inguk (Ha Seong-guk), and Hong makes use of some great long takes of the two chatting with each other to create endearing and warm moments between the characters. Interestingly, the exact nature of their relationship isn’t clearly defined: he came across her sitting on a bench in a neighbourhood park, playing a recorder. Seemingly a meet-cute, but also not quite — are they friends, or something more? Hong playfully dances around this question, letting us enjoy the cheeky little rapport the two have. 



A Korean woman and her son talking inside a small apartment.
Courtesy of the Berlin International Film Festival / Jeonwonsa Film Co.


This becomes juxtaposed with a visit from Inguk’s mother, Yeonhee (a fantastic Cho Yun-hee), culminating in an unforgettable, and surprisingly intense, scene in which she chews her son out for getting so close to a mysterious French woman he knows almost nothing about. Here, Cho brings a fiery passion to the emotional breakdown. 


It’s a fantastic scene in a film full of such offbeat, yet strangely realistic, interactions, which are ultimately elevated by the film’s lived-in quality. Even with Hong’s low-key stylings, you feel the impact of each encounter; his knack for allowing us to savour the small moments, lingering in the ebbs and flows of tension, before the emotions implode is as remarkable as ever. Each scene builds on the previous, crescendoing to a finale that is, at once, gently humorous and poignant in its lack of resolution. Hong finds the perfect balance between exposition and restraint, asserting that it’s in the words left unsaid that the truth can be found.

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