By Elias Savada.
I’m a latecomer to the work of South Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, but I recently caught Night and Day (2004) and Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), which reveal this Seoul-born and Korean-then-American-trained filmmaker’s unconventional, character-driven films as interesting and sometimes forceful human studies (as well as being festival favorites). He’s also, apparently, a notorious drinker and took more-than-a-passing interest in Kim Minhee, an actress in many of his films with whom he had an extramarital affair a few years ago. Now, he’s put his irreverent life on screen with Claire’s Camera.
The film is a breezy, off-the cuff, art-imitates-life piece that plays off the repercussions from a one-night-stand between an alcoholic, 50-year-old film director So Wansoo (Jung Jinyoung) and a film sales assistant, Manhee (Kim, best known to American art-house audiences for her role in Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film The Handmaiden), who has worked for Nam Yanghye (Chang Mihee) for 5 years. There’s an air of lighthearted nonchalance between the women when it comes to So, even after Nam, who has had an apparently clandestine relationship with the director, unexpectedly fires Manhee. The termination seems arbitrary and unapologetic. No real reason is offered other than a loss of trust over some vague dishonesty.
Any attempt to disguise who resembles whom is minimal as, early on, a poster for Hong’s film Yourself and Yours is easily viewable in the fictional director’s production office. Then illustrious French actress Isabelle Huppert, as the film’s eponymous character, utters the line “It’s my first time in Cannes,” the film-centric city where the film is mostly set (and where a fair number of her films have unreeled), and it seems like a crazy joke is in progress, considering the film premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
Men as reprehensible beasts is a common theme for Hong, and Claire’s Camera offers up the same with a central, wobbly, witless male character reinforcing this leitmotif with the same sorrowful, alcohol-infused, disheveled guy you always expect from the filmmaker. Jellyfish have more backbone than his men.
At the same time, Hong doesn’t necessarily place women on pedestals. They’re generally more intelligent than men, but seem to fortuitously fall out of grace (and into bed, offscreen) when susceptible to any number of temperamental, self-hating reasons. There’s no romance in the film, yet there seems to be (talk of) sexual connections.
Often feeling like a Woody Allen movie, where his surrogate character plays off that director’s infamous neuroses, particularly with dialogue like “95 percent of my mistakes in life were because of alcohol.” Unlike Allen, Hong loves to have his actors improvise, which does provide for some originality, but also appears to doom his films to the arthouse circuit.
Claire, a Parisian high school music teacher with an interest in poetry, gets introduced by casually chatting with the film director as they sit and sip at adjoining tables at a small café. She’s in Cannes to support a friend who has a film in the festival. He’s there because he has his latest work premiering. As their relationship widens into a casual friendship, Claire takes his photograph. Things start to change. She believes as she hands out the mini-Polaroid style images her instant camera allows, that people aren’t the same after they’ve been snapped through her lens. Her subjects can’t grasp her notion that they henceforth are different people. Everything sure looks the same. But maybe not—and that’s what adds a bit of whimsicality to the feature.
As for his style, Hong loves to linger. If he feels his actors are riffing on each other, he’ll just let the camera roll. One such extended scene occurs halfway through the film’s brief 69 minutes and involves So and Nam making decisions as they finish lunch. It’s a single seven minute take that captures how well Jung and Chang work within the director’s work ethic.
The usual staid camerawork that functions as Hong’s window to his world is much like his other films. Sit and point, with an occasional rough zoom in or out. The acting, particularly Huppert, seems wooden, even if she worked with him before in 2012’s In Another Country.
Remorse is just a meaningless word in the cosmically connected world of Claire’s Camera. Towards the end of the film, when Claire is posing a dog for a photo, I could swear that she had her right pinkie finger in front of the camera lens. If she’s an agent for change for the other characters that she meets during the course of the film, maybe she’s also obscuring something.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).