Claire's Camera and the Beguiling Films of Hong Sang-soo

The increasingly prolific Korean auteur has a new movie starring Isabelle Huppert that’s emblematic of his charms.

A still from 'Claire's Camera'
Cinema Guild

The eponymous character of Claire’s Camera, played with unusual guilelessness by Isabelle Huppert, wanders from scene to scene like a motivational sprite, striking up conversations with strangers on a whim. As the film’s title suggests, Claire has a Polaroid camera with her, and she has the friendliness of a tourist, which she is—a Parisian on vacation, she’s accompanying a friend who has a movie at the Cannes Film Festival. But Claire also operates as a strange sort of metaphysical force: Throughout the film, she separately runs into and chats with three different people who are embroiled in a simmering love triangle of sorts. Does Claire realize the connection between these new friends of hers? It’s hard to tell.

Claire’s Camera is the 20th film from the South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, whose work regularly features that vague air of cosmic mystery. Is Claire purposely engineering something by approaching these three mixed-up souls, or should audiences just take the serendipity of these encounters at face value? This director doesn’t nudge the viewer one way or the other. And though this latest project might feel like a trifle (it’s only 69 minutes long and was filmed at Cannes to take advantage of a press appearance Huppert was doing there), it’s also a clear statement of artistic intent. Hong is one of the most exciting directors working right now, but his reputation feels undersung, perhaps because of how light and disposable his movies often seem. In reality, they’re anything but.

Hong makes his films quickly and on a low budget; they largely revolve around conversations at restaurants and bars, in which a static camera captures long takes of people chatting with each other, occasionally zooming in on one person, zooming out, and then zooming in on the other. His debut film in 1996, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, was critically acclaimed in Korea, and initially his follow-ups came once every two or three years. Recently, Hong has become even more prolific; Claire’s Camera is one of three movies he made in 2017, one of which (On the Beach at Night Alone) already got a limited release in the U.S., while the other (The Day After) is still awaiting release stateside.

Though his films usually have an airy, small-talk quality, Hong is an acute observer of the subtleties at play in each interaction, of the tiny power shifts that can take place over the course of a conversation. He can flesh out the backstory of a relationship just by examining how people converse. By keeping his camera focused, he encourages the viewer to take in every bit of body language, to mull over every choice of word. I’ve seen several Hong films, and I always find them bewitching; Claire’s Camera is no exception.

The only major difference here is the beachy European environment; Hong’s movies are usually set in his native land. The three people Claire interacts with are all Korean: There’s Jeon Manhee (Kim Min-hee, perhaps best known to Western audiences as the star of The Handmaiden), a film saleswoman who’s fired because of her one-night stand with a director. There’s the director himself, So Wansoo (Jung Jin-young). And there’s his girlfriend, Manhee’s former boss, Nam Yanghye (Chang Mi-hee). Claire flits between the three of them, chatting about what inspires them and taking pictures, and eventually generates some more surprising, emotional confrontations. Claire’s habit of snapping pictures as she encourages her new friends to talk about their feelings is sneakily meaningful. Train a lens on someone, Hong seems to be saying, and they automatically feel more important. Take a picture of something (be it a cheap Polaroid or a film), and it becomes a moment to pore over years later.

In the movie’s first scene, Manhee is fired in cryptic fashion; her affair is only alluded to, with her boss saying things like, “Even though I still think you’re goodhearted, I’ve come to think that’s no guarantee of your honesty.” Manhee is baffled, but she decides to memorialize the sad scene anyway, insisting that she and her boss take a selfie together. Not long after, in one of the film’s moments of coincidence, Manhee finds herself in front of a different camera—this time, Claire’s. “The only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly,” Claire intones at one point, and it’s advice worth weighing.

Hong’s films often have some mundane bit of fantasy woven into them, like Claire’s magical way of running into people. In Yourself and Yours (2016), a man decides to break up with his girlfriend, and then bumps into someone who looks exactly like her but has an entirely different personality. In Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), viewers watch a romantic encounter between two people play out twice—the first time, it’s a disaster, the second time, a success. But Claire’s Camera also contains an autobiographical element that has cropped up in Hong’s movies of late, after he confessed in 2016 to having an affair with Kim (who has appeared in several of his films) and filed for divorce from his wife.

The more downbeat On the Beach at Night Alone, which also stars Kim, explicitly grappled with their relationship—in it, she plays an actress whose relationship with her director has recently gone public. But Claire’s Camera, which was filmed right before the news of Hong and Kim’s relationship broke, also has an air of self-interrogation, even though the movie is mostly cheerful. “If I take a photo of you, you are not the same person anymore,” Claire announces as she readies her camera. Is Hong wondering at his own relationship with the lens he points at his stars? That’s for viewers to ponder.