Two things can be true at once. The old debate over whether Hong Sangsoo’s cinema is overly earnest or self-aware was always a bit reductive––when the most light-hearted of the director’s films transcend, it is usually a result of both. Regardless, those arguments fade further into the rearview mirror with A Traveler’s Needs, his first collaboration with Isabelle Huppert since Claire’s Camera (2017) and Hong’s funniest film in years. In one gloriously stilted scene at around the halfway point, a lawyer played by Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo attempts to flirt with Huppert’s character, Iris, who responds with a kind of unhinged wink-and-giggle movement––she then, insanely, repeats the trick. Wise to the cringing discomfort of the moment, Hong quickly cuts to a zoom reminiscent of the fan-favorite in The Woman Who Ran. Don’t say he isn’t in on the joke.

A Traveler’s Need takes place in Seoul and follows a dilettante claiming to be a French teacher (Huppert) who has apparently drummed up a new way to teach the language. Her method involves carrying a small stack of notes, tied up in a rubber band, and waiting for a moment when her client is fully present (either emotionally heightened, for whatever reason, or fresh from playing a musical instrument). She then takes a note from the stack and translates their description of the experience from English to French, all in the hope that they might absorb the language through some kind of hokey, emotional osmosis. She also has a fondness for makgeolli (which seems to have replaced soju as Hong’s spirit of choice), claiming to drink three bottles of the milky rice wine a day. When she shows her earnings to her boyfriend, he can’t believe it. Is she the real deal or a boozy con artist? Who’s to know.

The strangeness of all this, I suspect, is not lost on Hong or Huppert, but the confessions have a goofy sweetness about them, too, with the improvising performers grasping to express themselves on the spot, in a language not their own, often repeated back to them by Huppert for added effect. (In one endearing sequence, late on, Iris makes a connection with someone by reciting a poem she finds on a wall, translating it to French with the stranger’s help.) Dallying about in a summer dress, bright-green cardigan (it’s a welcome return to color for the director), and newly cropped blonde hair, the actress (who turned 70 last March) plays it with a kind of youthful, laissez-faire abandon. Hong leans into this, giving her character a far-younger Korean boyfriend, and spends much of the last act showing us how the young man’s mother is reacting to the news (not well). It’s a far shot from the moody male protagonists of some Hong work, and in Huppert’s wonderfully game performance there is much to cherish and enjoy. Just listen to her wax on about bread and salad. Just wait for Hong’s funny, lingering shots of her walking away.

It will please completists to note that A Traveler’s Needs premiered this week at the Berlinale, a festival Hong has blessed with presence in each of the last five years––making him a constant feature of outgoing creative director Carlo Chatrian’s reign. In that time, the work skewed melancholic, heavy with a kind of autumnal introspection. A Traveller’s Needs is just the tonic: a film that passes through you like a breath of fresh air.

A Traveler’s Needs premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: B

No more articles