The (Ir)reality of Images and Words in Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera (France/South Korea, 2017) and The Day After (South Korea, 2017) [AFI Fest & SDAFF 2017]
While watching a film by Hong Sang-soo, sooner or later one is hit by the fact that people are wondrously and humourously strange creatures. Fasten them to a routine and they thrive, even if in the long run they may chafe under it and perhaps rebel against it. But to see people thrive in a wholly different way is to tear them away from routine, to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into their cog lives, especially when the routine involves love and desire – or inversely, loathing and repulsion. Both Claire’s Camera and The Day After, two of the three films that Hong Sang-soo has premiered this year, involve such disruption of routines triggered by romantic relationships. Arguably, one can say the same about any other Hong film. But at this juncture in his filmography with these two films, what seems to be of the utmost interest for Hong is exploring how people, particularly artistically inclined ones, deal with such disruptions and how they access a different aspect/understanding of themselves and reality that they had not known about in the course of that disruption. Even more compelling about these two films is the way they take up that elusive process of bridging one’s subjective reality and physical reality prompted by a disruption – itself provoked by misperception. In Claire’s Camera it is through photographs, while in The Day After it is through words/writing. While both are structurally intricate, the tone of performance and philosophical inquiry is deceptively light-hearted in the former and highly strung in the latter.
The choice of the word ‘routine’ here is not meant to be pejorative. It simply refers to a chosen life pattern, which includes being married or in a relationship and thinking accordingly with that person in mind; pursuing one’s dreams; or making sense of what one really wants to do, romantically and/or professionally, among other things. That disruption of one’s routine can begin in one’s personal life that then seeps into work life, or vice-versa, is a given; the reality in one setting cannot but mix with the reality in the other and also impinge on other individual realities, leading to the most curious of human interactions due to shared and/or clashing perceptions of reality. Even when one film is not as memorable as others, the oft-noted honesty of Hong’s cinema is always present and lies precisely in its most elemental approach to depicting such shared and/or clashing perceptions of self and realities.
In Claire’s Camera, a young woman named Man-hee (Kim Min-hee) who is part of a company selling Korean films at the Cannes Film Festival is suddenly asked to quit her post by her boss Nam Yanghye (Chang Mi-hee) for unknown reasons. In her jobless state, Man-hee wanders around Cannes and encounters Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a Frenchwoman in town because her friend’s film is screening at the festival. Through casual conversation and a genuine interest in each other, they become friends.
Part of Claire’s allure is her curious, artistic eye towards people. Equipped with her Polaroid camera, she takes snapshots of the people she meets by chance, including Man-hee; she thereby captures a moment of their personhood in stillness, abstracted from their routine or disruption. Yet by taking their photos she also generates an imprint of what that person once was and now is – or rather of that in-between state – however miniscule or even imperceptible that discrepancy may be. Hence her belief that upon photographing someone, that person changes –again, however miniscule or imperceptible the change may be. What is important is that the change is tangible to her, to her perception of things. She relates just as much to film director So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), whom she meets under similar chance circumstances. During time spent with each party, Claire shows her Polaroid photos and one discovers a photo of the other, leaving them intrigued as to how these social links have been forged when they had just been severed, or disrupted, for reasons only ever hinted at in the film
Claire and her Polaroids thus come to play a crucial narrative role to delineate the disruption of routine (hence the title’s privileging of her and her medium of choice) and trigger subsequent developments that would not have occurred otherwise. Since the film itself does not provide an early explanation of the ‘who’ and ‘what’ or present events in chronological order, as is usual with Hong, the photographic image functions as evidence or trace, a tool of inquiry, a medium of communication, and an empty signifier, leaving the characters and spectator to come up with their own perception of the reality contained therein.
Just as open-ended but more aggressive in tone, The Day After ponders human interaction following or in the midst of a disruption of routine. Upon arriving at a small publishing company for her first day, A-reum (Kim Min-hee) experiences a series of emotional confrontations with her boss Kim Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo), his wife Hae-joo (Jo Yoon-hee), and Bong-wan’s former lover Chang-sook (Lee Sae-byeok). By the end of the day, she is dismissed from her job.
The snowball of confrontations begins when Haejoo mistakes A-reum for Chang-sook. In what is possibly the most violent interaction in all of Hong’s films, arriving at the office, Hae-joo initiates a standoff and then proceeds to hit A-reum; in her defense, she hits back. Yet this moment takes place about a third into the film, when the identity of A-reum in relation to Chang-sook is still ambiguous. Until Hae-joo and A-reum’s encounter, the ﬁlm’s editing weaves A-reum and Chang-sook seamlessly: starting an action/gesture/situation with one woman and concluding it with the other, oftentimes in a similar or the same space. This editing pattern is applied to Bong-wan as well once the opening sequence in conversation with his wife in their apartment ends. In scenes interspersed with those of the other characters, Bong-wan is seemingly with both A-reum and Chang-sook, simultaneously walks or jogs on the street alone or with one of the women, from/to his apartment or his office, in different clothes and sometimes different times of the day. Whose perception of which reality is it? What Hong does so damn well is bring together shared realities (work, marriage, friendship) and then softly bang them against individual, disparate perceptions to constantly produce inspired observations.
The doubling and switching of actions and scenes are ultimately revealed to be two different time periods, the recent past of Bong-wan’s affair with Chang-sook and the present with A-reum’s first day. Through their juxtaposition, however, the film arrives at an altogether different temporality, one closer to the flow of consciousness wherein past/present/future constantly commingle and clash, unique to each individual but transformed into a collective one when prompted by a disruption that links all four characters. When this individual subjective reality, and misperception on Hae-joo’s part, becomes collective, it makes for a humourous and insightful base of interaction.
Instead of taking photographs, as in Claire’s Camera, in The Day After the more abstract medium of language is the mode of trying to reconcile disparate perceptions of reality as well as complicating one’s own perception vis-à-vis others’. As aspiring or established writers, at least in A-reum and Bong-wan, it is a principal recourse. The film’s most important moments are therefore two protracted conversations that are as much about words/language and perception as they are about work or an affair, the first between Bong-wan and A-reum during lunch at a restaurant, the second between Bong-wan, A-reum, and Hae-joo in the office to shuffle through each person’s mis/perceptions of things.
In the first conversation, Bong-wan and A-reum tread into rather existential issues, such as why one lives and what one believes in for one’s life, and also the nature of reality, be it physical or subjective, and the point where they meet (or end). Bong-wan even comments on the uselessness of words to capture reality, either physical or one’s own sense of it. A-reum counters with her own words regarding belief, prompting Bong-wan to say that she is much smarter than he had thought. In the second conversation, when Bong-wan insists that A-reum is not the woman with whom he had an affair, Hae-joo counters with the insignificance of his words. He tells nothing but lies, so why should she believe him? A-reum and Hae-joo demonstrate how words here also function as evidence or trace (Hae-joo finds out about the affair through a poem that he wrote on a scrap of paper), a tool of inquiry, a medium of communication, and an empty signifier.
So why write? Take pictures? Or make films? Even if Bong-wan states that words can never really capture realities, one’s own or another’s – or that shared between people – he still believes in them enough to continue writing, for which he wins a long-anticipated award in the film’s last conversation. Even if Claire is the only one who can see the change in the person whom she photographs, the mere fact of sharing that perception of change with other people holds the potential of triggering perceptual shifts in them.
Claire’s Camera and The Day After have recently been shown at AFI Fest and the San Diego Asian Film Festival.