Claire's Camera

Minor project by auteurs can sometimes serve as keys to their entire body of work. Think of Fellini’s A Director’s Notebook, Godard’s Scenario for Passion or Hal Hartley’s Surviving Desire. Until Claire’s Camera, I could appreciate the wispy pleasures of Hong Sang-soo’s films, the super-light production values, their handcrafted toy-like structure and their endearing improvisational texture, but I couldn’t understand what Hong was getting at as an artist. Running for about 68 minutes—a wonderful runtime for films to have—Claire’s Camera is one more of Hong’s parallel universes, another permutation of his typical character descriptions, dramatic situations and scene compositions. But I think it offers something more and comes close to a statement of intent by this notoriously self-effacing filmmaker: making films is a way to deal with loneliness, to experience catharsis by way of representation.

What allows for this authorial transparency in Claire’s Camera is the presence of the Claire herself, played by a delightful Isabelle Huppert. With her yellow blouse and trench coat, dotted panama hat, little blue handbag and polaroid camera, Claire is an instant screen icon, the kind that makes it to fan art and DVD covers thanks to its unique profile. There’s a perpetually-drunk, philandering fifty-year-old filmmaker character, So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), whose film is playing at Cannes and who is obviously a clone of Hong’s, but he’s not the director’s alter ego here. It’s Claire, obsessed with taking pictures of people, even when they are visibly in distress. She tells So that people are not the same after being photographed. In other words, people are mystified or demystified in their photos; they’re always more or less than what they were, but never the same.

When asked why she takes photos, Claire responds that “the only way to change things is to look at things again very slowly”. Hong’s cinema, too, is about relooking, reexperiencing the same things over and over with the hope of illumination or change. The repetitions and restaging in these films function as a kind of therapy, a dwelling on small details that guilty conscience takes to be the source of big mistakes. There is then a philosophical underpinning to the reverberations of Hong’s universe—a notion of eternal return that is at once cathartic and hopeful. Yourself and Yours, Hong’s previous film which makes its appearance in a half-hidden poster in the first shot here, imagined the revival of a broken relationship through the reiteration of the gestures that birthed the relationship in the first place. The film was made the same year Hong filed for divorce over his affair with actress Kim Min-hee, who plays the part of Man-hee, a film agent once in affair with director So, in Claire’s Camera.

Hong shot the film in Cannes in 2016, a year he wasn’t showing anything at the ongoing festival. A thoroughly anti-touristic filmmaker, Hong nevertheless takes inspiration from the locations he makes films in. The sun-kissed Riviera setting allows him to pay tribute to his French influences in subtle but extraordinary ways. There’s, of course, the reference to Rohmer in the title, the final freeze frame à la The 400 Blows, and Huppert’s profession as a music teacher. It is, however, the spectre of Marguerite Duras that looms large in the film. Director So has Claire read him lines from C’est Tout—a charming image of Huppert speaking French in a Korean film she’s supposed to speak English in. Like the works of Duras, Claire’s Camera seems to unfold in an impossible, perhaps cyclic timeline. Huppert’s Claire is a kind of time master, who is able to meet characters for the first time multiple times. The film shuttles between past and present, but it isn’t certain if these time relations are sacrosanct.

Like in Last Year at Marienbad, we aren’t sure that the characters have met each other earlier, and that they are only pretending otherwise. The same words, shots, sounds and situations float around the film to be picked up later as an echo. Claire’s Camera is so chock-a-block with twin scenes, dialogues and compositions—two scenes of brutal disavowal, two scenes of three people eating, two shots of Man-hee filmed from the back, two zooms of her working at the office, two romantic escalations between So and women and so on—that the viewer can predict the sort of vignettes that will follow. Hong’s film is a low-key exploration of memory and forgetfulness in the vein of Hiroshima mon amour, another film about the encounters of a filmmaker in a land half a world away.

Hong’s is a cinema of two shots. The more the merrier, to be sure, but shots with more than two characters tend to be unstable or turn into drinking binges. One the other hand, shots with one character, such as someone smoking or walking, are always small pauses or intimations for another character to arrive. Hong’s films appear to be acting out in their form, as it were, the fear of being alone. The ideal is two—the number that calls for social drinking, confession or romantic advances. Claire’s Camera contains individual scenes with five of the six pairs possible with his four-character setup. Together with countless similar shots from Hong’s oeuvre, they constitute an exorcism, and an epigrammatic definition of what cinema is: two people talking.

On the Beach at Night Alone

            Made the same year as Claire’s Camera, On the Beach at Night Alone begins with a closeup that becomes a two shot through a reverse zoom. The scene is a café in a western country during winter. Two Korean women (Kim Min-hee and Seo Young-hwa) discuss how beautiful and liveable the city is. We aren’t told which city this is—clues suggest that it’s in Germany—and it’s only referred to as “abroad” when Kim’s character, Young-hee, is back home. A street market is visible at the edge of the frame, but that’s all the glimpse we get. Hong as a filmmaker never allows himself the decadence of a pretty sight. The second part of the film takes place in a supposedly-picturesque, sleepy town in the northern part of South Korea, but the director shows us nothing outside of a nondescript street corner. A hotel room with French windows opening to a beautiful view of the sea is expressly blocked by a window cleaner, whose purpose in the film is just that.

On the Beach forms a narrow diptych with Claire’s Camera: both are set in European countries in opposed times of the year; both feature Kim as a temperamental film professional jilted by a middle-aged filmmaker. But the driving perspective of the narrative is entirely the women’s rather than that of Hong’s alter-ego. Seo plays a wistful woman who has left her husband to move to Europe. Young-hee is spending time with Seo, but her thoughts are with her filmmaker-lover back home. The two women find European men attractive as well as gentle: they play piano for her, they serve her food and, most of all, they don’t question her. The Korean men Hong populates the film with, on the other hand, are just short of vultures. They are presented as presumptuous if not creepy, overbearing and unduly inquisitive. Young-hee tries to start her life anew in both Europe and back home, but is thwarted by Korean men in both cases: the European section ends with a Korean stalker literally carrying her away from a beach.

The uniform and unsubtle manner in which Korean men are caricatured here leads to only one inference: Hong is projecting. Excusing himself by pointing to the failing of all Korean men is no excuse, so he incriminates himself more directly in the inevitable, large dinner scene that forms the film’s climax. Young-hee’s filmmaker-lover is drinking with her and his group of assistants when the discussion shifts to his ongoing film. He talks about his personal approach to filmmaking, prompting Young-hee to wonder if it isn’t boring to talk about oneself all the time. The director’s coterie of yes-men mutters something about the irrelevance of subject matter. Young-hee launches into a righteous outburst questioning the director’s right to make films about his ex-lovers. The filmmaker breaks into tears over his own torment and diffuses the tension of the scene. Hong’s men are usually bumbling, but the serious director here is all the more comical in his seriousness. Hong is clearly in a self-flagellating mode, but his character contours are so soft, the strokes so light that it doesn’t feel exhibitionist in the way Lars von Trier’s recent works do.

While On the Beach fails its male characters, it gives its women characters the space and voice they deserve. Although structured around absent men, the first part of the film is simply images of women eating, walking, talking and shopping together. Young-hee gets to deliver a long tirade on love during a binge and then kiss another woman, Jun-hee (Song Seon-mi), with whom she develops something resembling a romance. And in what counts as a shooting star in Hong’s cinematic sky, she gets a solo shot in which she smokes and sings a song. In the final shot of the film, she wakes up at a beach to thank a man whose feet alone we see. Hong’s cinema has prepared us to expect this to turn into a two shot. But no. Framed against a vast grey sky, Young-hee bows to a void and walks away alone—a reversal of the first segment’s ending and a radical assertion of solitude in a cinematic universe mortified by that thought.

Hahaha (2010)
Hong Sang-soo
Korean

 

HahahaHong Sang-soo’s easy-to-type Hahaha (2010) is the kind of picture that critics comfortably dismiss as light and frivolous. That’s because Hahaha is light and frivolous. And consciously so. The film presents two young friends who accidentally meet and decide to hang out in a pub nearby. During their bout, they take turns to recite their experiences during last summer in a sea-side town. As the two mildly amusing stories unfold, we realize that they are not all exclusive as both tellers believe. We see characters and events that span the two stories, time-line of one story flowing into the other and the characters’ paths intersecting in bizarre and not-so-bizarre ways. Perhaps these two men are drunk enough (or dumb enough) to not realize that their stories share a single universe. Or it may be that one of them is only playing along and making his story up. Or maybe both of them are playing a game of Exquisite Corpse. It is also equally possible that both of them are sincere and it is Hong who is pulling their legs by actually making a film out of their stories wherein he fuses and confuses separate characters. The two stories are contaminated by regularly occurring zoom shots that lend the film the look of a bad sitcom or, more accurately, an amateur video made on the sets of Hahaha which reveal the artifice of it all. Existentialist in approach, Hong’s film argues, as does Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004), that one’s life is how one interprets it to be and that value of things resides only in one’s perception of those things. Consequently, like Allen’s film, one of the stories is high on marital drama and the other, on romantic comedy. (Actually, the former ends up being hysterical while the latter is pretty bland). But the film is also a testament to the power of stories in embodying our desires and overcoming our fears and a lighthearted appeal for the existence of personal, eccentric histories – personal and national – as opposed to the unquestionable, unfruitful facts handed down by text books.