Hong Sang-soo is one of South Korea’s most prolific filmmakers, but his body of work is comprised of titles not as widely known to international film audiences. His films exist on the fringes of an industry in South Korea which enjoys massive commercial and international success but, for the past couple of decades Hong, as it is with some of the finest filmmakers, has created his own medium of formally inventive and wholly original films that seem to exist in a genre—perhaps even an industry—of their own.
Hong’s approach to his craft seems to be mostly extemporaneous and unplanned, a potential drawback which also happens to work in favor of the offbeat allure of Claire’s Camera. The film, purportedly-yet-ostensibly autobiographical, was shot in just nine days while the director was in attendance at Cannes Film Festival. The filmmaking process that’s as spare, tense, and rigid as the film itself. There’s no question Claire’s Camera draws close parallels with Hong’s own life, or more recently his extramarital affair with his leading lady and muse Kim Min-hee. He even inserts a burnt-out independent film director in Jung Jin-young (his bacchanalian alter ego). Claire’s Camera seems to express a deep-seated urge to make movies, and at the same time, demonstrates Hong’s remarkably resourceful abilities in making films.
Claire’s Camera, also set at Cannes during the final days when everyone is scurrying about, opens with Jeon Manhee (Kim Min-hee) being fired from her film crew—for no apparent reason—by her pernicious boss (played by Chang Mi-hee). After the firing, Jeon becomes something of an errant waif aimlessly wandering the city’s sunny beach; there she meets the similarly aimless Claire (Isabelle Huppert, always a glowing presence), an older French woman who carries a large Polaroid camera. The two form an abrupt friendship, but one that becomes disturbed when Claire has a chance encounter with the director of Jeon’s film crew; the drunken So Wansoo.
In much of the way that makes his past works appealing, Claire’s Camera is a film that clues us in on the details which the characters are blind to. In Hong’s hands, this type of audience-omniscience achieves something comic and even flat out Brechtian—his films are often about looking from a vantage point that exists only through a film lens, where precise camera movement and incredibly specific blocking allows us to see more about the lives being led than those actually living them. Achieving this, however, Hong never hopes to stir any strong sentiment or emotions in his stories or characters; the film conjures too firm an analytical perspective for us to absorbed in the drama. But where Hong mitigates emotional involvement, he emphasizes a greater awareness of his subjects through a fascinating blend of naturalism and inventiveness. This is an unburdened perspective which Hong, while not always mastering, seizes.
However similar it may be, the hypothetical world of Hong’s creation doesn’t quite become the looking glass into his own life. Hong Sang-soo never pretends it does either, as Claire’s Camera‘s attention is centered not on the director (who he likely identifies the most with) but on Jeon. As we come to learn, Jeon—who is neither a narrator or even much of a protagonist—embodies just another point of view in a revolving door drama. Shifting between Jeon, Claire and So’s perspective, Hong Sang-so does however create a funny interplay, with the divisions between gender and culture. Gaps and disparities explored through a playful formal detachment. Yet, Hong—never one to trifle in the trivial—does find one emotional grace note, combining film and personal history, he thoroughly uses this format to investigate the boundaries between fiction and reality.
While consistently funny, Claire’s Camera never quite approaches farce, and though formally precise, never truly achieves high art. Expecting either, however, from a movie filmed in nine days (and edited in one) with no notes and very little preparation, would be foolhardy. The finished result alone is an impressive feat of personal resolve, but with Hong’s seemingly endless ingenuity, Claire’s Camera becomes another fascinating way of looking at the world through a camera.