A Traveler's Needs


Reviewed by: Sergiu Inizian

A Traveler's Needs
"Huppert's lines feel stiff from the get-go, predicting a vague narrative limited by a purposefully strange dialogue." | Photo: 2024 Jeonwonsa Film Co

Hong Sang-soo is known for a slow-paced filmmaking style that studies everyday situations through an almost peculiar minimalism. His nonchalant characters always seem to make way for intimate moments of connection, offering the patient viewer experiences of unexpected warmth. Still, his abstruse style can set up a project to fail, with conversations fading within a series of ellipses and momentum diminishing in what feels like a wholly improvised exercise. This is mainly the case with A Traveler’s Needs, a half-hearted story about a French woman in Korea which seems to resemble an odd comedy sketch on most occasions.

In her third collaboration with the Korean filmmaker, Isabelle Huppert plays Iris, a wandering French woman with no past and few worries. We open as she converses with Isong (Kim Seungyun), a shy young woman who answers the protagonist's questions about her piano playing. Huppert's lines feel stiff from the get-go, predicting a vague narrative limited by a purposefully strange dialogue. Soon, it becomes evident that she teaches French, making small cards in her native language, based on the conversations. Isong is then instructed to repeat the phrases from the notes till the next visit. The sweet novelty of this artifice wears off, becoming lost in a series of offbeat conversations as soon as the protagonist meets her next students.

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Wonju (Lee Hyeyoung), a woman of a similar age to Iris, is sceptical of the foreigner’s teaching method. The French woman joins her and her awkward husband (Kwon Haehyo) to discuss languages, work and their daughter. Returning to the same conversations frequently, the Korean director crafts a repetitive story with dialogue that teeters between laughable and ambiguous. Whether deliberate or accidental, A Traveler’s Needs basks in a generous amount of humour. In step with the suggestive title, Hong Sang-soo seems interested in exploring language barriers, the intent behind words and the absurdity of what gets lost in translation. But the series of stilted discussions over numerous glasses of makgeolli wine lead nowhere. Their charm quickly disappears, similar to how Iris inexplicably vanishes after each lesson.

Returning home, we discover she shares an apartment with Inguk (Ha Seongguk), a gentle young man who is captivated by her free spirit. Theirs is a relationship which touches a certain degree of endearment. Still, its principal merit is setting up his lengthy discussion with his mother (Cho Yunhee). Yeonhee’s baffled questioning of her son, charmed by an older woman, resonates with a genuine display of vulnerability. In his room, harsh words and meaningful tension tell a truthful story about her absence and his wishes. Their emotional moment adds a degree of sincerity and depth to a narrative which feels like getting lost in its intentional vagueness on too many occasions.

When she's not teaching, we see Iris relaxing in a park, dipping her feet in cold water and randomly playing a recorder. Her story hints at the joy of simple existence, which the Korean director backs with an almost rudimentary visual style. While this ambiguous method has proven effective in a long series of minimalist works, it falls short in this latest entry. From questionable performances to uncanny dialogue and a lack of focused intent, A Traveler's Needs seems too indifferent to constitute an engaging experience.

Reviewed on: 21 Feb 2024
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Iris, a wandering woman teaching French to Koreans, navigates her life with few concerns.

Director: Hong Sang-soo

Writer: Hong Sang-soo

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kwon Hae-hyo, Hye-young Lee, Ha Seong-guk, Yunhee Cho

Year: 2024

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: South Korea


BIFF 2024

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