Claire’s Camera (2017) ☆☆(2/4): Hong Sang-soo’s misfire in Cannes

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Several weeks ago, I belatedly read “Two Weeks in the Midday Sun”, which was written by my late friend/mentor Roger Ebert in 1987. The book was about numerous things he observed and experienced during the two weeks of the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, and I frequently snickered while reading this entertaining book full of funny and interesting anecdotes to be savored and appreciated. (My personal favorite one is about a certain obscure South Korean film called “The Castle of the Rose” (1969), by the way)

Compared to what I vividly remember from “Two Weeks in the Midday Sun”, Hong Sang-soo’s recent work “Claire’s Camera”, which was incidentally shot around the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, is not that funny or interesting, and it is all the more disappointing because it somehow fails to generate sharp moments of humor and insight you can expect from Hong’s film. Although there are a few nice moments during its notably short running time (69 minutes), the movie seriously lacks comic momentum in contrast to many of Hong’s better works, and I often found myself becoming quite impatient as it merely trudged along its thin narrative.

The movie begins with the sudden situation of one of its main characters. Man-hee (Kim Min-hee) is a young woman working in some film production company, and the opening scene of the movie shows her working along with others at the Cannes Film Festival. After her boss Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee) approaches to her for a small talk, we come to learn that Yang-hye fired Man-hee, and, as Man-hee wonders about what caused her unexpected dismissal, the movie goes back to her conversation with Yang-hye at a nearby cafe. While not giving any simple direct answer, Yang-hye keeps emphasizing that Man-hee is inherently dishonest, and Man-hee only comes to be more baffled and frustrated.

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And then the movie moves onto the scene between Yang-hye and a middle-aged filmmaker named Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), who comes to Cannes because of the official screening of his latest work at the festival. As we listen to their private conversation, it becomes quite clear to us that Yang-hye has been in a relationship with Wan-soo, and Yang-hye is not so pleased with what happened between Wan-soo and Man-hee not so long ago.

While watching this, some of you will probably be reminded of what recently happened between Hong Sang-soo and his frequent actress Kim Min-hee, but the movie does not reflect or reveal anything personal from Hong while just observing its main characters from the distance. Although there is an expected moment of confrontation between Wan-soo and Man-hee later in the story, it feels rather contrived without any particular comic or dramatic effect, and I also think it is unnecessarily mean and cruel to Man-hee as trying to show how petty and unlikable Wan-soo is.

I forgot to tell you about Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a teacher/poet who occasionally photographs people whom she finds interesting. At one point, she spots Man-hee, and she naturally photographs Man-hee after having a short conversation with her. Not long after that, Claire comes across Wan-soo and Yang-hye at a Chinese restaurant, and, of course, she is amazed by this sheer coincidence when she later shows them several photographs including the ones showing Man-hee.

During her conversation with Wan-soo and Yang-hye, Claire explains a bit about why she is particularly interested in photographing people, but I must say that her words feel vague and superficial as we never see her photographs in the movie. Sure, I look a bit different from how I looked about a few seconds ago, but I am not sure whether there is anything profound about that.

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As I felt more dissatisfaction during my viewing, I naturally tried to find good things in the movie, and there are indeed a few good elements including its solid main cast members, who did as much as they can for filling their respective roles. While Chang Mi-hee and Jung Jin-young are suitably unlikable, Kim Min-hee, who was terrific in Hong’s previous film “On the Beach at Night Alone” (2017), brings some sprit and charm to her character, and Isabelle Huppert, who previously collaborated with Hong in “In Another Country” (2012), acquits herself well despite her thankless role. Whenever Huppert and Kim are together on the screen, the movie becomes a little more interesting, but then it is simply content with merely putting them together on the screen, and that is another major letdown in the film.

Since he makes his first feature film “The Day a Pig Fell into the Well” (1996), Hong Sang-soo has been as diligent as Woody Allen during next 22 years, and watching his latest work has been akin to an annual event for me and many other South Korean audiences. While I did not love his earlier films such as “Woman on the Beach” (2006) and “Night and Day” (2008), I became accustomed to his own human comedy as admiring “Like You Know It All” (2009), “Hahaha” (2010) and “Oki’s Movie” (2010), and I appreciated his storytelling experiments in “In Another Country”, “Our Sunhi” (2013), “Hill of Freedom” (2014), and “Right Now, Wrong Then” (2015).

Although “Claire’s Camera” is a misfire on the whole, we will get another work from Hong sooner or later, and he will probably bounce back from what may be the lowest point in his long, productive career. As a matter of fact, his new film “Grass” (2018) was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, and I and other South Korean audiences will soon see whether he is back in his element or not.

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