In some ways CLAIRE’S CAMERA is peak Hong Sang-soo. In the 21 years that he has been making low-budget films, he has remained doggedly faithful to presenting everyday conversations, often by people in and around the film industry.
As one of three films Hong released this year starring The Handmaiden‘s Kim Min-hee, along with On the Beach at Night Alone and The Day After, here she plays Manhee, a film sales assistant who is suddenly fired by her boss Nam Yanghye (Chang Mi-hee) in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival. Adrift, she strikes up a friendship with Parisian teacher Claire (Isabelle Huppert), in town to support her friend’s film.
This slender plot thread is only complicated by the concurrent friendship Claire, ubiquitously toting her titular Instamatic, is forming with Director So Wansoo (Jung Jin-young) and Min-hee’s former employer. Even in the short running time, the conversations between the four leads take their time, bridging the language divide with stilted English as a compromise between the native French and Korean speakers.
The approach will be a familiar one to followers of Hong, and is justified here by Claire’s rationale for constantly taking photos. “The only way to change things,” Claire sagely advises, “is to look at everything again very slowly.” It’s probably telling that the ‘beautiful’ photos she is reportedly taking are never seen by the audience, and the only ones we see are of the other players.
As such, Claire herself remains something of an enigma. Played with enigmatic innocence by Huppert, we only learn crucial nuggets about her backstory in the final few scenes of the narrative. Similarly, the true nature of the past connections between the three Koreans reveal themselves slowly and unsurprisingly through seemingly throwaway pieces of dialogue.
In fact, this approach to dialogue is almost a microcosm of CLAIRE’S CAMERA, covering territory that the director has well and truly explored more than once, and arguably better. With Hong’s accelerated pace of filmmaking, here is a film that was made between commitments at last year’s Cannes Festival. Even so, Hong’s interstitials still have more emotional impact than more structured pieces, and a stroll through the south of France with Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-hee is still a fine way to spend an hour or so.
CLAIRE’S CAMERA screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2017. It releases in the US and Australia in August.