AFI Fest 2017: Claire’s Camera and The Day After, by Scott Nye
Hong Sang-soo is known for his productivity, having made a film or two every year since 2008, but even his fans were caught off-guard by the 2017 threefer On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire’s Camera, and The Day After. Though it seems we’re all pretty much in agreement that On the Beach (which played L.A. Film Fest earlier this year and shows twice this week at the Downtown Independent) is the best, AFI’s selections are themselves terrific, and it’s rather remarkable to see a filmmaker remain so creative and prolific at a time when his peers sometimes seem unable to develop one idea over the course of many years. AFI Fest showed Claire’s Camera and The Day After in successive time slots, further emphasizing how distinct each is and how fortunate we are to be living in the era of Hong.
The flashier but less interesting of the two, Hong shot Claire’s Camera with stars Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-hee while they were all in Cannes last year for the annual film festival. The film deals with the glamorous affair only glancingly – Huppert plays a teacher accompanying a friend there; Kim is an assistant to a sales agent who gets fired after sharing an intimate night with their client. This leaves both sort of floating around the festival, and they quickly bond over their shared lack of purpose. Huppert is a tourist who loves photographing the people she meets, while Kim is more shy, reserved, and somewhat put off by her new companion’s forwardness.
The film follows the “vacation movie” model where brief relationships can be intense but fleeting. Hong never loses sight of how odd it is to become deeply invested in a place and people you will soon have to leave, but his improvisatory approach – writing scenes on the morning they’re to be shot – leaves this one, even at a very nice 69 minutes, a little desperate to fill the time. Cannes displaces Hong (even his previous Huppert collaboration, In Another Country, was set and shot in South Korea), and it’s not often we see a chiefly Korean-and-English-language film set in the south of France, but he doesn’t entirely develop this strand, letting the background more or less speak for itself. But for those of us who have come to adore Huppert and Kim, their work together is more than valuable enough. They take obvious joy in one another, reflecting our own.
The Day After finds Hong in more familiar territory, even if it is his first black-and-white film since 2011’s The Day He Arrives (something about “day”s, perhaps). Kim Min-hee stars again as a new assistant to a married book publisher (Kwon Hae-hyo) whose previous assistant quit after their love affair turned sour. Taking place mostly over Kim’s character’s first day on the job, which gets worse and worse and worse and, still, somehow, worse, Hong is acutely aware of the corrosive effects of infidelity. That Hong and Kim have themselves carried on a romance that ended Hong’s marriage, I’m sure, is less than coincidental, and particularly calls into question the portrayal of the publisher’s wife as shortsighted, cruel, and stubbornly paranoid.
This would be a more problematic element were the publisher and his younger lover not so despicable themselves. They’re transparently self-centered, leaving the new assistant at odds with how to fit in when all she wants to do is learn a bit about the business. The more she gradually accepts that she is not the captain of this vessel, the more amusing the film becomes, but this is largely a return to the more bitter end of a Hong Sang-soo film than his last few efforts, which have tended towards the comedic.
In all of his 2017 films, but especially these two, Hong seems to be letting go of his premises that favored repetition and recurrence in favor of something looser and more improvisatory. Even as a Hong fan, I have to say I’m rather taken with this new approach, and hope he continues to develop it. On the Beach at Night Alone is one of the year’s best, and Claire’s Camera and The Day After show that even someone as productive as Hong is capable of covering new ground while revisiting familiar themes. He continues to utilize long takes that make individual gestures by the actors really pop – it’s one thing to kill with a glare in a close-up, but Kim Min-hee can do it in a wide shot that’s already gone on three or four minutes. His work seems to find eternal renewal, and I’m rejuvenated every time I step into it.