Last year saw the premiere of not one but three Hong Sang-soo films—the gently oneiric On the Beach at Night Alone, the anguished black-and-white The Day After, and the airy 79-minute Claire’s Camera. All feature muse Kim Min-hee (now seemingly, welcomingly forever a fixture in Hong’s work). In Beach, she’s quietly recovering from an affair with a filmmaker first in Hamburg, then in her sleepy Korean hometown. In The Day After, she’s innocently caught in the middle of her book publisher boss’ sexual dalliance, so much so that his wife mistakes her for his mistress. And in Claire’s Camera, she plays yet another character enmeshed in the intimacies of friends and associates.
Although this observation virtually applies to every filmmaker, it is more so with Hong: with each and every film in his continually expanding oeuvre, Hong’s aesthetic alters, now becoming more forthrightly emotional and less reliant on film technique (panning and zooming long takes followed by brief pillow shots are all he needs) with his most recent works, including Claire’s Camera. Aside from a slightly skewed timeline in the plotting, the film has a freeform, instinctual, and organic structure (which I suspect is partly due to Hong’s method of scripting and shooting chronologically). Breezy and casual, Claire’s Camera comes off as something of a lark but a resplendent one; it’s akin to Hong’s version of A Day in the Country (1936).
Beach, The Day After, Claire's Camera—this trifecta, Hong's hat trick as it were, contains themes and preoccupations coursing throughout Hong’s recent work: female-centric narratives, the battle of the sexes, and the shifting sense of perception (of the filmmaker, of the characters, of the viewer). It is this last element that colors the deceptively innocuous Claire’s Camera.
Characters in Claire’s Camera are quick to acknowledge viewpoints that are right or wrong, from themselves or from others. “It’s just how I see it.” “If that’s how you see things, it can’t be helped.” To perceive is to express yourself, your individuality. Perception is a slippery, ever shifting state. A camera, like Claire’s (Isabelle Huppert) blue Polaroid, can freeze a moment with a picture, but that moment will mean something different for each person. Moreover, like Claire says in the film, taking a photo somehow changes a person. Perhaps their aura alters slightly. And on a literal and molecular level, a person is no longer who they were when they had their photo taken seconds ago. They’re slightly older.
Shot over the course of nine days during the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Claire’s Camera opens with Manhee (Min-hee), an assistant for a film sales company. Setting up an impromptu meeting, her boss (Chang Mi-hee) chats with her over coffee in a quiet outdoor café. The conversation is casual and easygoing, but the mood evaporates and she, out of the blue, fires Manhee. There’s no reason (yet); she calls Manhee a goodhearted person but not an honest person.
During the scene, characteristically filmed in a long take, Hong frames the shot so that the boss faces the camera while Min-hee remains in profile. Her reaction to the news of her dismissal is only partially visible on her face. But what comes across, however, is the sense of defeat, perhaps, or servitude in the way in which she hunches her shoulders. She seems to almost lean over the table that they’re sitting at. As Darren Hughes put it in his interview
with Hong, “much of the [scene’s] drama is in her stooped shoulders.” Once her boss finishes what she has to say, Manhee leans back in her chair, reeling. She turns in her seat, spots something on the ground behind her, gets up, crouches, and starts petting a big grey dog. Her mood slightly improves. Meanwhile, Hong’s camera has been slightly zooming and panning to re-frame and re-orient characters in the space that they inhabit.
That dog. It’s one of Hong’s signature props, one that creates coincidences, a cohesive story (or the semblance thereof), and a sense of serendipity, for it links several characters. Claire, a schoolteacher, tags along with her filmmaker friend to Cannes. Equipped with her camera, she will later pet this same dog, recite a Marguerite Duras poem for the director (Jung Jin-young) Manhee once represented for her job, and she’ll befriend Manhee herself.
Claire is the outsider innocently stepping into the lives of several people who know one another and who are dealing with an imbroglio brought on by mixing business and pleasure. As they lounge about in between scheduled interviews and screenings, meals and coffee talks, and communicating in a mixture of Korean and clumsy English, the characters remark on art (a poem, a mural) and the thoughts of others. While Claire consoles her, Manhee says, “I hate the whole world.” “You mean, the life you’re living?” Claire qualifies. “Yes, I guess so. They’re [the] same things.” And yet such a depressed mood doesn’t last long in sun-dappled Cannes as circumstances change, even mid-scene. The world, and therefore a life can change in an instant. It’s all a matter of how one sees things.