TURNING THE LENS: Looking and Reliving in Hong Sang-Soo's Claire's Camera

By Crewe, Dave | Metro Magazine, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

TURNING THE LENS: Looking and Reliving in Hong Sang-Soo's Claire's Camera


Crewe, Dave, Metro Magazine


WHETHER IT BE TAKEN AS A FRIVOLOUS FILM IN WHICH CINEPHILES IDLE IN ONE OF THE SCREEN'S BELOVED CITIES, OR AS AN EXTRATEXTUALLY RICH WORK THAT LETS ITS CREATOR REFLECT, BY PROXY, ON SOME REALWORLD FOIBLES, CUMRE'S CAMERA REVEALS MUCH ABOUT WRITER/DIRECTOR HONG SANG-SOO AND THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWERS OF MEMORY AND THE MEMORIALISED IMAGE, WRITES DAVE CREWE.

The choice to have Claire's Camera (Hong Sang-soo, 2017) open the 2017 Queensland Film Festival seemed entirely appropriate. Opening-night films tend to be lighthearted affairs, screened to accompany hors d'oeuvres and sparkling wine. Running at just under seventy minutes, Hong's Rohmeresque film of romantic and professional complications intertwining on the outskirts of the Cannes Film Festival fitted the bill perfectly.

The critical response that followed Claire's Camera's out-of-competition premiere at (the real-life) Cannes certainly suggests that it's an easygoing film. Variety described it as a 'lovable wisp of a character study'; (1) The Film Stage framed it as 'a decidedly laid-back affair'. (2) The Hollywood Reporter, (3) Slant (4) and Film Comment (5) all chose 'breezy' as the adjective du jour (though it's worth noting that the last of these qualified the descriptor with 'deceptively'). I don't mean to quibble with these critics' characterisation of the film: Claire's Camera is delightfully refreshing and refreshingly delightful, particularly for viewers neck-deep in the grim social dramas that tend to dominate contemporary film fests. If you want to evoke the experience of idly wandering the sunny streets of Southern France after perhaps a beer (or soju) too many, you could do much worse.

Nonetheless, I'd argue that the film's lightness belies a deeper, more sophisticated examination of relationships and how we perceive them. In their aforementioned reviews, both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter read the film as an ode to the medium--as being about, respectively, 'the restorative powers of cinema' (6) and '[t]he eternal question of whether cinema [...] can make a difference in people's lives'. (7) I don't see much evidence to support either interpretation, but I'll concede that Claire's Camera is primarily about how we see and how we remember--actions ingrained in the soul of cinema.

Hong's camera

To understand Claire's Camera, we need to understand its creator. This is Hong's twentieth feature, his first being The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996). It's also one of three films by the Korean director released in 2017, alongside On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After. Hong is the very definition of an auteur: he has written (almost8) all of his films, and they are so similar that they blend into one another once you've seen more than a few. His style is simple, unostentatious: long takes, one camera, obtrusive zooms. He shoots in chronological order, writing during production and allowing for plenty of improvisation. His filmography is filled with older men trying to sleep with younger women, invariably over dinners fuelled by a staggering amount of soju. (9)

Profiling the director for Metro three years ago, Anthony Carew posited that 'isolating specific films isn't the way to approach Hong's canon, which is best taken as a collective'; (10) I'd argue that Claire's Camera is likewise best understood in the context of Hong's other films of 2017 and the director's private life. Many critics have contextualised On the Beach at Night Alone, The Day After and (to a lesser extent) Claire's Camera around Hong's affair with actress Kim Min-hee, who stars in all three. This isn't an empty attempt at invoking extratextual scandal for clicks, either; all of Hong's 2017 films address the ramifications of infidelity between an older artist and a younger woman.

This isn't unfamiliar subject matter to Hong. Carew finished his profile by observing, 'Wondering which Hong film features a filmmaker pressuring a younger woman to have sex with him is a little like trying to remember which Ramones song starts out, "One, two, three, four! …

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