Hong Sang-soo’s “Claire’s Camera” – 2017 San Diego Asian Film Review


The Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo is as remarkably prolific as he is revered in cinephilic and film festival programming circles. He’s now made 21 feature films in as many years of filmmaking, since his 1996 debut “The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well.” His modestly budgeted features, boasting elegant and often narratively audacious yet deceptively unassuming filmmaking, explore very similar realms of artists – very often filmmakers – and their romantic and social complications and conflicts.

Although Hong’s films are set in milieus that he is intimately familiar with, he resists the reading of his work as autobiographical. However, in the past couple of years, it would seem that his avoidance of direct autobiography has been significantly lessened. In 2015, Hong made “Right Now, Wrong Then,” which starred popular actress Kim Min-hee (“The Handmaiden”). While working on that film, Hong and Kim began an affair; Hong at the time was married to his wife of 30 years. Hong subsequently separated from his wife and left his family, which also consisted of their daughter. This extramarital affair, combined with the 22-year age difference between the older Hong and the younger Kim, caused a huge scandal in Korea, which at one point had them both leaving the country for a brief period to get away from the media firestorm. Earlier this year at the Korean premiere of one of Hong’s recent films, they broke their previous media silence by openly admitting to their relationship.

These events were attendant with an increasing pace in Hong’s already prolific output, with no less than three films premiering at this year’s Berlin and Cannes film festivals: “On the Beach at Night Alone” at Berlin (where Kim won best actress); “Claire’s Camera” and “The Day After” at Cannes. These three films – “On the Beach” in particular – can be fruitfully read as Hong’s direct response to the scandal in which he found himself embroiled. All three films feature Kim involved to differing degrees with men who are either married or at the very least firmly attached to significant others. “On the Beach” and “The Day After,” though not without their funny moments, for the most part contrast sharply with the more comic vein of his previous several features. “Beach” is marked by a moody melancholy, while the black-and-white lensed “Day” often partakes in a caustic, bitter tone.

Wedged between these poles is “Claire’s Camera,” a breezy, sunny (both literally and figuratively) and very lovely film shot in Cannes during last year’s film festival. Compared with “Beach” and “Day,” which are weightier and longer – “Claire’s Camera” clocks in at little more than an hour – this film may seem like a gossamer-like trifle. But that surface level appearance is deceptive; despite its lighter touch, “Claire’s Camera” reaches a remarkably deep level of profundity in what it has to say about the restorative, indeed magical, powers of image making.

Even though it was shot in the midst of one of the world’s biggest film festivals, there’s nary a movie star (save the principal actors), a paparazzo, or film fest crowd to be found. Instead, Hong features locations seemingly far removed from the hustle and bustle, and begins his film in the rather mundane setting of a film sales office. (Here, Hong indulges in a playful bit of self-reflexivity by including a poster for his own film “Yourself and Yours” in an early shot.)

Working in this office is Man-hee (Kim Min-hee), who early on is abruptly fired by her boss Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee) for very vaguely articulated reasons, other than her baffling description of Man-hee as good-hearted but dishonest. Soon the real reason for Man-hee’s firing emerges: the night before, Man-hee engaged in a drunken hook-up with film director So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), who happens to be Yang-hye’s long-time lover. (Whether Man-hee was aware of this at the time is unclear.) After her dismissal, Man-hee wanders the streets of Cannes, in a melancholy mood, left with nothing else to occupy her time, and either unwilling or unable to return immediately to Korea.

Also drifting through Cannes is music teacher Claire (Isabelle Huppert), who’s there because a friend of hers has a film at the festival. Besides being a teacher, she’s an amateur poet and, more pertinently, a photographer, who always carries a Polaroid camera to shoot people she meets. Claire interacts at points with the other three main characters, and claims her camera isn’t simply a recording device for capturing mementos, but a magical object that changes the subjects of her gaze. “If I take a photo of you, you’re not the same person anymore,” Claire says at one point. At another she articulates her personal motto: “The only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly.”

Shot on the fly in nine days, and making extensive use of improvisation, particularly in the English-dialog scenes, “Claire’s Camera” is a subtly non-linear narrative, and a charming roundelay of chance encounters and romantic complications, as well as a lyrical ode to the joys of art and art-making. Claire and Man-hee both display their artistic sides in the course of the film: Claire recites one of her poems, while Man-hee sings an adorable song she composed about numbers.

The film’s best scenes are the encounters and conversations between Claire and Man-hee, as these set-adrift women commiserate and sympathize with one another. Isabelle Huppert (reteaming with Hong after their previous collaboration “In Another Country”) and Kim Min-hee impress with the spirited energy of their improvised riffing, all the more remarkable for it being conducted in English, which is neither woman’s native language.

The two other principal actors also deliver memorable performances, with Chang Mi-hee’s character hinting at a more passionate side beneath her clipped, brusque exterior, while Jung Jin-young’s boozy film director suggests that Hong is inserting some sly self-parody here.

Hong has often been compared to French director Eric Rohmer, and “Claire’s Camera,” with its sharply revealing dialog and its summery setting, may be Hong’s most directly Rohmer-esque film yet, even evoking Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee” with its title. However, its charms and pleasures are all Hong’s own, and this represents a high point in his filmography, similarly to his sublime 2014 film “Hill of Freedom,” which “Claire’s Camera” somewhat resembles, with its comparably slender run-time (also barely past an hour) and with characters from different countries and cultures interacting with each other. Claire’s camera may or may not change those who come into contact with it, but Hong’s camera certainly affords viewers endless transformative pleasures.

“Claire’s Camera” premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and most recently screened at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. It screens next at the Singapore International Film Festival on Nov. 25