A Traveler’s Needs (2024)


A Traveler’s Needs Review

Together, the director and star have made three films. In this work, they have created a character who is alone in a different country but gives us almost no information about her life. Our only tools to understand her are her repetitions and questions.

“A Traveler’s Needs” centers around Iris, a tiny mystery who dresses both to be seen and disappear. Underneath a brilliant sundress with red and purple flowers scattered across it, she wears an aggressively bright green cardigan the color of green screen backdrops. She fades into the lush leaves of a city park in full summer or is swallowed by the paint job on a tennis-court-like roof terrace. No one knows where she comes from beyond her thick French accent; she doesn’t seem to know where she’s going either, really I imagine her being dropped into any number of locations suggested by that environment-hostile knitwear and looking just as out-of-place on streets of Seoul.

But she’s played by Isabelle Huppert, so we feel like we know her better than we do: typical curt quizzical good-humor Huppert. And thus begins Hong Sangsoo’s latest short-shorts comedy of elusiveness (I’m running out of ways), where the game-playing starts not with characters but with us; inviting us to fill in its blanks with assumptions or guesses based on what we think we know about people like this (strangers; superficial acquaintances) and leaving our score sheet blank for every correct answer or reason revealed along way because none will come nor would that even matter hide show please note down these rules.

If there’s anything comforting about Huppertian scattiness or offhandedness, though, it’s that “A Traveler’s Needs” doesn’t much care about disguising its conundrum-ness beneath such familiar veils, if anything (everything) could be said to yield satisfaction in puzzlement would come from some other source altogether. But even cryptic should be met with puckishness indefatigability I still think my favorite description Hong could ever have received as filmmaker was from someone who said his films were like math problems you couldn’t solve because he always changed the equation just before giving out answer anyway.

Iris and Isong (Kim Seungyun) are in a sparsely furnished, sunlit apartment when we meet them. They play a game where Isong plays piano for a few seconds, then Iris asks her what she feels when she plays. At first, Isong says “Happy.” Then she gives more details as Iris asks again and again: annoyed that she’s not better at it, pissed off that Iris won’t stop asking. It’s likely that Isong has hired Iris to teach her French; they speak in stilted French and English. Whether or not this is one of Iris’ teaching techniques or if it’s something she does all the time is up to us.

Whichever way you look at it, this is a trick she employs over and over again, in a sequence of meetings that are the same structurally but different in fine shades of Iris’s mood. It doesn’t seem as if she’s a real teacher, with her rambling street-lesson plans coming across as an improvised way to make ends meet in a city where she has no friends, and no apparent reason for being. The film appears to take place over one afternoon; maybe these episodes suggest the general meandering drift of her days. The second lesson is with Wonju (Lee Hyeyoung, the superb lead of Hong’s “In Front of Your Face”), and it does repeat some lines and situations from the first, but this time there is an understanding between two women around the same age.

Like Isong with Wonju, Iris politely pries into Wonju’s history until she gets stories about family and childhood out of her though what Iris gives back are sad thoughts about death. This repeating scenes or setups with slight differences that change everything has been something Hong has done for a while most elaborately/brilliantly in 2015’s “Right Now, Wrong Then” but here it comes from a character whose mind operates like that. Conversations are recorded or reused for supposed language improvement.

But we lose Iris more and more as we spend time with her, until finally at her apartment shared on entirely inscrutable terms with mild-mannered young student Inguk (Ha Seongguk), there happens a nutty funny series of exchanges. The arrangement doesn’t make any sense to Inguk’s mother. why would it? She asks flat-out what everyone else avoids: Who is this weird Frenchwoman that you live with? 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?” But it turns out you can: Hong and Huppert draw us into the magnetic, strange past of this woman with no history or future that we warm at least to whoever we imagine her to be, appealing to our most curious people-watching, storytelling instincts.

Playing Iris very gently indeed, Huppert lets happiness and anxiety surge under her face in equal measure or maybe not equal; according to her favorite question, which is posed many times over but never answered directly so we know how she feels even if we can never guess what she’s thinking. (Or is there a greater giveaway?) And she doesn’t seem much bothered about other people’s thoughts or feelings about her. Some of the nicest bits in the movie are pictures of Iris by herself, eating bibimbap alone in a quiet café, getting drunk and woozy on makgeolli, that milky rice wine that has brought out some rich confessions in Hongs past but here just settles everything into a soft focus. She seems both happy and sad all at once, or maybe neither, either way it suggests living mostly in the present tense is enough for A Traveler’s Needs. This sly weirdness from Hong also implies it might not be such a bad way to live.

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