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Looking Again, Slowly: On Hong Sangsoo’s Claire’s Camera

Claire's Camera. Image Courtesy Cinema Guild

Claire’s Camera is one in a series of Hong Sangsoo’s recent films to feature actress Kim Min-hee and revolve around a recurring storyline: a woman’s affair with a film director. Anyone familiar with Hong’s work knows that infidelity has long been a thematic staple of his domestic dramas, but his three films that premiered in 2017—Claire’s Camera, On The Beach at Night Alone, and The Day After—feel distinctly new and different. It’s true that these films appear in conversation with, if not in direct response to, Hong’s recent subjection to tabloid scrutiny in South Korea for having an affair an affair with Kim and subsequently filing for divorce. If these recent experiences had a hand in influencing the theme and direction of Hong’s recent work, however, they do so in a way that is rather unexpected and refreshing. All three 2017 films, rather than trading in what would have been rather tired notions of male genius or the moral prerogative of the artist, focus instead on the inner life of their female protagonists. Claire’s Camera, as with On The Beach at Night Alone and The Day After, is focalized through the lens of the character played by Kim, whose perspective enables us to make sense of the film’s world. 

Of course, a camera lens is more than a metaphor in Claire’s Camera. Claire (Isabelle Huppert) is a teacher, poet, and photographer visiting Cannes for a friend’s movie premiere, where she strikes up a friendship with the melancholic Manhee (Kim), a sales assistant for a company that represents the films of fictitious director So Wansoo (Jung Jinyoung), who is summarily fired early in the film and finds herself with little to do. Claire seems to intuit the fact that Manhee is in need of a companion—they eat dinner together, walk along the beach, and bond over their dislike of elevators. Claire’s Polaroid camera works as the film’s main conceit, stitching together scenes that, in typical Hong fashion, don’t form a neatly linear narrative. Claire and Manhee return together to locations they’d previously visited separately, places that Claire has photographed, such as the café where Manhee’s boss (Chang Mihee) fired Manhee upon learning of her affair with So. The film captures the uncanniness of returning to certain spaces and places you’ve been to before, in which everything seems to be as it was, except that time has passed and things aren’t quite the same. 

Manhee asks Claire, “Why do you take pictures?” Claire responds: “Because the only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly.” Claire’s response seems to describe Hong’s filmmaking process on a broader level, the way Hong takes the time to explore similar themes, time and again, across multiple films and through a variety of perspectives. By now it’s well-established that there are few directors as prolific as Hong, and it seems that working quickly, often, and with limited budgets has given him ample space to focus on character and dialogue in greater depth.

Playwright Annie Baker is well known for her use of dramatic pauses and silences which allow the viewer to feel the sheer presence of absence and dwell within moments that elude communication and understanding. Baker writes in the prefatory notes for her play Circle Mirror Transformation that silences are vital to the play’s “meditation on theater and life and death and the passing of time.” In this respect, Hong is truly Baker’s kindred spirit, and Claire’s Camera is a striking case in point. There’s one particularly glorious bout of silence that lasts for over twenty painful seconds. Claire, who has struck up a conversation with So at a café, invites him to sit with her. Then, So and Claire sit there. And sit there. We realize that neither of them can understand the other in each other’s mother tongue, so they sit there, uncomfortably, for what feels like an eternity. Then, Claire comes up with the idea to Google So on her phone, this being the only way she can think to engage with him even though he is seated right there next to her. Here, silences and pauses work to punctuate a character’s anxiety over what to say, or whether to say what one is thinking. Hong patiently holds the awkward silence to suggest that language more often prevents, rather than enables, communication.

Hong’s filmic style, like Claire’s photography, is patient and observant. His films can often feel somber, self-reflective, even austere, eschewing conventional editing techniques in favor of long, uninterrupted, static takes that are occasionally accented with striking zooms. Hong also prefers to film in neutral spaces, such as the interior of a restaurant or a café. What is a recent development in Hong’s work, as is instanced in Claire’s Camera, is the presentation of two competing ways of seeing the world: observation and surveillance. The former tries to understand the complexities of social life, while the latter tries to gain mastery over women’s bodies. It feels as if everyone is always either catching sight of Manhee somewhere or talking about how they just saw her somewhere. The social surveillance feels almost claustrophobic, much like Claire’s explanation as to why she dislikes elevators. Several of the film’s less sympathetic characters refer to female sexuality in terms of its “messiness,” as something against which they must protect themselves: when Manhee’s boss fires her, she tells Manhee that she would like to break up ‘cleanly’ (깨끗이); Manhee’s boss later describes Manhee as someone that had been a ‘meticulous’ (꼼꼼한) employee before she had had to fire her; and So breaks up with Manhee’s boss by saying that he would like to ‘tidy up’ (정리) their relationship. It is striking that these characters employ the discourse of housekeeping to recast sexual relationships as matters of social hygiene. Cleanliness, it seems, is only possible when one is alone.

Claire’s Camera puts a slightly more whimsical twist on some themes that have long preoccupied Hong, and it’s useful to understand the film in the context of his broader artistic trajectory. His latest work seems to heed the lessons of his earlier films, breaking with their constant thematization of frustrated male subjectivity. Claire’s Camera is part of a real and decisive shift in direction for Hong, and it will be interesting to see how he continues to explore female perspectives. With The Day After slated for release in the US on May 11 and his latest, Grass, having just had its world premiere at the Berlinale in February, we’ll soon have a clearer sense of how the light yet focused Claire’s Camera fits into this new stage of his career.

Contributor

Peter Kim

PETER KIM is a playwright in New York.

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