There's a running joke—at least, I think it's a joke—that if you shoot part of your film in the French city of Cannes, you will automatically be selected by its film festival. Sneaky Hong Sang-soo, then, who quietly and quickly shot the short feature Claire’s Camera last year with Kim Min-hee, who was at the festival for The Handmaiden, and Isabelle Huppert, who was there with Elle. And now, this year in Cannes, here is the film. A nimble and thrifty filmmaker often directly inspired by the places he goes and the people he meets, Hong's wry and plaintive short story satirizes the film industry—raging unseen and unheard offscreen—while ennobling the magic of happenstance meetings and chance’s circuitous ironies.
The film begins in a space possibly never seen in cinema: a temporary office in Cannes rented by a sales company to promote the films they represent. (The poster for Hong’s great 2015 film, Yourself and Yours, which was not selected by Cannes last year, is pointedly place at the edge of the frame.) Kim plays Manhee, a sales agent who is taken out for a drink by her boss Yanghye (the excellent Chang Mihee) who abruptly fires her without details, saying only that while her heart may be good, she is dishonest—and refuses to say about what. Meanwhile (or earlier, as time and order of events is one of Hong’s elements of play), Huppert, as Claire, arrives in Cannes as the friend of a filmmaker, and while at a cafe befriends So (Jung Jinyoung), a Korean director whose film is produced by Manhee’s company. When So meets Yanghye on a beautiful beach in Cannes, the reason for the dismissal falls into place: So, currently dating his producer, drunkenly slept with Manhee the night before. The camera of the title is an instamatic that Claire awkwardly uses around the town, and she passionately explains to an incredulous So that her subjects are changed after having their photo taken. Soon she meets and befriends Manhee on a beach, too—"I hate selling!" Manhee exclaims—and the circulation of Claire’s photos and the triangulation of her friendship tests the two Koreans, one whose job just evaporated and the other whose long-term relationship just imploded.
Far from a polished production, Claire’s Camera paradoxically pairs off two acting super stars across several charmingly awkward, seemingly spontaneously shot conversations. The two actresses are so charismatic—and Huppert in hat and trench dressed like an amateur detective!—that their stilted attempts to connect and communicate in the shared language of English comes off at once completely true to such random meetings in foreign countries, but is also something quite surreal, if not magical. “I agree,” Claire exclaims at Manhee’s disgust with selling films. “It’s great to agree,” she responds. “I agree 100%,” Claire eagerly affirms. Each struggles to hit their lines in good but not great English, drawing on the same humor of misunderstandings and emotional pleas as Huppert's other film with the director, In Another Country. Eating and getting honest with Yanghye, So gets drunk, and with Claire’s photos and Hong’s casual imbuing of normal locations with wry oddness and repetitions Manhee is able to exorcize her unhappiness and reclaim herself, while So faces the emptiness of his chauvinism. And clinching the surreal realism of this delightfully playful and most-unlikely film are the normally unseen back street cafes, rooftops used for parties, anonymous international restaurants, uncluttered beaches, and, of course, offices of film sales at the Cannes Film Festival.
The day after Claire’s Camera premiered in Cannes, another movie by Hong premiered (for those counting, that's three films in 2017 so far), this time in the competition section and, in a coincidence very in keeping with the filmmaker, is called The Day After. A more robust drama than the on-the-fly sketch of the other film, this black and white beauty is in the same refreshingly serious, if not solemn, tone of Hong’s grave Best Actress winner in Berlin, On the Beach at Night Alone. Fidelity, time and choice are the subjects, introduced in the remarkably condensed opening, where small book publisher Bongwan (Kwon Haehyo) is accused over breakfast by his wife Haejoo (Cho Yunhee) of cheating. He responds with nothing more than defensive, derisive silent chuckles. When he leaves for work we see scenes of him flirting with this possible lover (Kim Saebyuk), but when he arrives at the office, he discovers another woman, Areum—Kim Minhee again, now consecrated as a figure of strong independence and sensibility in Hong’s world. She's the beautiful new hire starting on her first day and, we quickly find out, is filling the position left vacant by Bongwan’s lover.
The parallel timelines of The Day After efficiently introduces the idea of Bongwan toggling between reality, memories and desires, but then Hong leaves behind his frequent rhythmic shenanigans to let us piece together the nuances of each relationship. We see Bongwan with his lover; then we see him with his new employee; then Haejoo visits the office and mistakes Areum for her husband’s mistress; and so on—The Day After rotates its four players around to create the clever shape of two love triangles, one in the past, one in the possible future, with the seemingly passive but subtly caddish Bongwan at its meeting point. It makes for a rich and surprisingly melodramatic series of encounters, full of speculation, accusation and tension—none more so than us waiting precariously in every scene to see if Bongwan will try to fill the role of his lover with Areum. The man tethered to his relationships is contrasted quietly but powerfully with a woman free to evaluate her options as they come. The emotional distress of the characters and the spare narrative's various inroads (or exit points) to happiness deepens this sturdy structure, showcasing yet again that this director too often dismissed of making similar movies in fact contains in himself as many clever possibilities and proposals as his plots.