Delighted by revision as a narrative method, the Korean director Hong Sang-soo makes films that force audiences to judge the present based on the steady encroachment of the past. Populating these films with movie directors would open him up to charges of preciousness if Hong didn’t value a certain kind of drollery; his characters, the women particularly, think through their reactions with an understated wonder that’s a response to life’s little peculiarities. Making his films quickly out of improvised sets – restaurants, apartments, beaches, most prominently – gives them a found-object freshness. 2016’s Right Now, Wrong Then follows the herky-jerky courtship of a young woman in Suwon and a director she meets in a temple before Hong restarts the story using gradations as subtle as the haystacks painted by Monet in changing light. This bipartite structure reaps rewards if audiences have the patience to endure them, but Hong rarely writes scripts longer than a hundred minutes.
Claire’s Camera, which debuted in South Florida at the Miami Film Festival two weeks ago, is even more of a divertissement: sixty-nine wonderful minutes during which
the eponymous title character, played by Hong veteran Isabelle Huppert (2012’s quizzical In Another Country), stumbles into a love triangle at Cannes and which her presence seems to complicate. Joining Claire’s Camera in concluding its its run at Miami Beach Cinematheque is On the Beach at Night Alone, starring Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden), as a woman trying to move on after a relationship crumbles. This double bill represented a rare treat for South Floridian cineastes.
The pair’s common denominator is Kim Min-hee, playing a character ill-used by male filmmakers. In the opening sequence of Claire’s Camera, the superior of the two films and 2018’s best film to date, Jeon (Kim) gets the ax from her boss Nam (Chang Mi-hee). in a ten-minute conversation that’s Jamesian in its polite evasions. “Even though I still think you’re goodhearted, I’ve come to think that’s no guarantee of your honesty,” Nam tells her, in a tone suggesting she’s explaining why she likes noodles. “You’re the one who’s had it worse.” Gradually audiences learn that Jeon’s fired for sleeping with the director So Wansoo (Jung Jin-young), a gruff older fellow also sleeping with Nam. The contrast between Jeon’s despair and the sun-drenched alleys and cafes of Cannes creates a mild chill. Out of this sunlight steps Claire (Huppert), a piano teacher and would-be poet attracted to Jeon’s sad docility. “It’s my first time at Cannes!” Claire chirps, a line sure to cause a giggle in crowds who after forty years think Huppert must own beachfront property in the south of France. The dialogue consists of vapid enigmas like, “Selling is no fun if you know what I mean,” or, as in my favorite exchange:
“I wish I was an artist.”
“Oh, I see.”
How Hoo manages to whip up a comedy this sad and wry constitutes one of the minor miracles of contemporary cinema, especially since the chronology of Claire’s Camera is deceptively complex. Like the knee that serves as object of obsession and MacGuffin in Eric Rohmer’s early seventies film about another Claire, the camera wielded by Hoo’s Claire orders reality according to mysterious whims. “The only way to change things is to look at them again very slowly,” she observes – an aperçu that describes Huppert’s performance too. Few actors can play very serious and slightly dense people without condescension and as much generosity to her colleagues as Huppert can; her rapport with Kim, dependent on an insistent but gentle sense of cultural misunderstanding, is a delight. Organized mostly as a series of two-person dialogic set pieces, Claire’s Camera exposes a bit of Jeon a scene at a time, for, after all, the only way to change things is to look at them again very slowly: an encounter at a party with the director who dumped her begins in mutual embarrassment but ends in humiliation for Jeon when she realize he criticizes how her wardrobe lures men too easily. By the time Claire’s Camera settles into – not reaches – its conclusion, with its faint allusion to Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, we still worry about Jeon with the abstracted anxiety of parents watching a grown child walk out the door to the car.
For Koreans, Jeon may command a prurient interest: Kim and the married Hong had their own fling that made the tabloids. This gives 2017’s On the Beach at Night Alone a subtextual interest for those who like that sort of thing. Yet another exquisite examination of the ever-changing moods of Kim, who like Margaret Sullavan can wring gradations of pathos from her quiet smoky voice, On the Beach at Night Alone is a hair’s less amazing than Claire’s Knee, romantic loneliness treated as a pathological condition but absent the sense of victimhood. The plot, insofar as one exists, stars Kim as Young-hee, trying to exorcise her affection for the director who dumped her. This time she’s in Hamburg, chattering to a worried friend as they smoke and walk through the park, where she curls into a ball as if wishing to dissolve into the pavement (“You’re an odd person,” her friend confides). Without explanation Hong cuts to Gangneung a quarter into the running time – had we watched a dream sequence? In the titular scenes later in the picture Young-hee finally sees the lover who jilted her – or does she? The older men argues, politely but insistently, with her in a dinner sequence – or does he? Hong adores these elisions and temporal disturbances: with its two beginnings, Right Now, Wrong Then constantly reminds audiences of its existence as a film, a non-mimetic experience that nevertheless pulses with human feeling. Drinking (reluctantly) Max beer and (enthusiastically) soju rice liquor with friends, Young-hee can’t resist acting out her pain. A well-lubricated dinner scene climaxes with a lip lock between Young-hee and a female buddy, to the pursed-lipped annoyance of the husbands and boyfriends left out. “Let’s get rid of all the men and love each other!” she says,
A lie. Her natural state is aloneness, what Alfred Kazin, writing about Willa Cather’s heroines creating identities in the prairie, called “a kind of spiritual clarity possible only to those who suffer their loneliness as an act of the imagination and the will.” The film’s loveliest sequence happens earlier, in which Young-hee, smokes outside an inn, humming a pop song to herself as if muttering a prayer. Although compared more than once in his career to Rohmer, no doubt because of his affinity for self-questioning young women set in rigorously defined urban or natural spaces, Hong does share the French portraitist’s embrace of banality. “At times the films feel like the products of a hermetically sealed system, excreting and consuming the same material in perpetuity,” Nick Pinkerton wrote in a judicious review of On the Beach at Night Alone last autumn that also took stock of Hong’s career. This applies to his characters. So are most of us condemned to repeat patterns. “Knowing better” explains nothing, ever. Those beach sequences, incidentally, are Hong’s most Rohmer-esque: think 1986’s Le rayon vert, in which the occurrence of a natural phenomenon over the horizon mirrors the softening of the recalcitrant heroine’s heart. As lensed by Park Hongyeol, similar moments in On the Beach at Night Alone have a melancholy glow. Young-he will go on, and when she does Hoo will be there to look at her again in the expectation that she will change, very slowly.
Claire’s Camera and On the Beach at Night Alone concluded runs at Miami Beach Cinematheque. Look for them to stream or become available on DVD soon.