Between Work: A Conversation on Claire’s Camera and The Day After

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Evan Morgan: The sun’s out, palm trees are in sight, and we’ve temporarily traded in soju for sancerre. Hong Sang-soo is en vacance again. I don’t know about you Sean, but I’m always happy to see Hong in the literally and figuratively breezy mode that he takes up in Claire’s Camera. The seasons have long played a central role in the Hong project, though it seems that the tonal vacillation between his summer and winter films grows with each passing year. Hong’s sense of humor lilts along during the warmer months, and though it never goes entirely dormant in wintertime, it cools and takes on a serrated edge, like cracked ice. Claire’s Camera, in keeping with this seasonal dichotomy, might be his most amiable movie yet, defined as it is by Isabelle Huppert’s warm naiveté and the dabs of sunflower yellow provided her summer frock. Huppert’s flightiness bleeds into the plotting too, which moves with a nonchalance that borders on amateurishness. I mean that as a compliment. It strikes me that Hong’s acceptance into the upper echelon of the art cinema world (the film unfolds during Cannes, after all) occurred simultaneously with his loosened production methods, and though the competition gatekeepers prefer the more somber Seoul films, the animating spirit of later Hong owes much to the laidback atmosphere of friends who vacation together and decide, ‘what the hell let’s make a movie.’ It’s not for nothing that this most amateur of Hong films is set against the backdrop of the world’s premier film festival.

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SIFF 2017: The Dumb Girl of Portici (Lois Weber, 1916)

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Few things wipe the sleep away from bleary festival eyes quite like a retrospective screening which, regardless of provenance or even quality, helps to restore the cinematic senses. Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici is not exactly a forgotten masterpiece awaiting rediscovery, but even in the context of revival screenings it’s a bit of rarity: pre-20s cinema mostly lives on the small screen these days. See Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers blu ray set for a recent and relevant example of the curatorial work being done in the home video format, even as streaming continues its march towards total domination. Lois Weber is well-represented in that set, and by programming The Dumb Girl of Portici (which Flicker Alley did not include) SIFF takes part in the same push to move women’s contributions to early cinema from the historical footnotes, where they’ve frequently been resigned, and into the mainstream canon. If it accomplishes nothing else, The Dumb Girl of Portici at least testifies to the clout and studio resources Weber had accrued by the mid-teens, less than a full decade into her career.

Though more than studio scale (it was something of a mega-production), it’s Weber’s stylistic coups that count. The film opens with a little cinema-of-attractions amuse bouche: ballerina turned temporary movie star Anna Pavlova floats onto the screen in dissolve, dancing against the void. Abstraction soon gives way to rather banal plotting. Something about a nobleman donning oppressed peasant clothing and making nice with the eponymous mute. I imagine this felt as rote in 1916 as it does today, though Weber finds flourishes: choreographed dances that prefigure, in primitive form, the geometric patterns of golden age musicals or the cascade of energy unleashed when the vox populi storm the castle perched above their beachside hovels. These crowd scenes in particular serve Weber’s skills well; she has a proto-Langian eye for the way that mobs move as if controlled by a single nervous system and the late film revolt ignites her visual sense. She hacks away at the proscenium staging by hurtling her camera down diagonal axes, typically against the movement of the players. The effect, coming so suddenly after an hour of flat planes, is practically three dimensional. Another dance closes the film, again manipulated with optical printing, though instead of a black vacuum Weber superimposes Pavlova dancing over a series of backlit clouds, Maya Deren’s spirit born a few decades early. As a whole it’s inarguably minor. As festival fatigue sets in, the buried treasures contained within are more than enough.

SIFF 2017: Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Abstracted images of abs and biceps open Beach Rats, appearing to the flashbulb rhythm of iPhone selfies. The body is Frankie’s, a closeted teenager whose father dies outside his bedroom while his attraction to virile middle-aged men awakens. Director Eliza Hittman mingles thanatos and eros, ethnography and moralism unproductively, aiming for balance but arriving at regressive parallelism. Beach Rats instructs Frankie about the dangers of living in the middle. Hittman should take her own advice.

SIFF 2017: By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Boundaries are under attack in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thailand. The 1976 Thammasat University massacre infiltrates past and present, people and personhood, eating away at the tissue that divides. What’s left over is anyone’s guess: By the Time It Gets Dark shape-shifts into a unclassifiable design, the root contagion ultimately wreaking havoc beyond Suwichakornpong’s control. A kaleidoscopic final shot throws acid, though it seems that the film might spore on, finding forms both banal and beautiful forever.

SIFF 2017: Knife in the Clear Water (Wang Zuebo, 2016)

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What does it mean to program a film like Knife in the Clear Water in 2017? And lest there be any confusion, Wang Xuebo’s film is not, as the title suggests, a Polanskian exercise in triangulated sexual tension. There aren’t even enough points here to form a triangle; the only relationship of note is between man and cow. I’ll resist the flippant impulse to label the movie itself as bovine, but suffice it to say that if you’ve been to a film festival in the last 30 years, you’ve encountered Wang’s chosen mode: the lumbering, slow, dull art movie, the kind of cinema constructed around underrepresented peasant classes, devoid of incident save the barest whisper of conflict, composed exclusively in long take, and, bonus points, in 4:3.

The film follows a farmer who resists sacrificing his beloved beast of burden in order to fulfill the burial rites initiated by his wife’s death. Shot in China’s harsh mountain region Ningxia, Knife in the Clear Water understands itself to be a hard-eyed glimpse into the lives of the Hui people who call this place their home. At least in terms of texture, the film does manage to capture something: the way that atmosphere, earth, and skin mingle together as if cut from the same ashen cloth suggests the bond shared between the landscape and its inhabitants. On the other hand, I wonder the extent to which any of the filmmaking choices here emerge from lived experience. I cannot presume to know how the Hui community in the film would choose to depict themselves, either collectively or through the peculiar eye of a homegrown artist, and for all I know what’s on display here is that vision, but the fealty with which Knife in the Clear Water adheres to every stylistic cliche of the festival circuit, its total alignment with the demands of the market (and let’s be clear, it is a market), raises some doubts. Hou Hsiao-hsien and co.—inarguably the progenitors of the style—can count many sons and daughters among the filmmakers most favored by programmers worldwide, which must be considered a coup given the initial modesty of their project, and yet by transforming an economic limitation into an aesthetic they bequeathed to a generation of cash-strapped artists a safe, bankable blueprint. The blame for slow cinema’s status as a lazy generic default can’t be laid at their feet or even Wang’s, really. But après Hou, le déluge; year after year the market is flooded.

A film like Knife in the Clear Water exists because filmmakers and festivals lack a vision of the future. Both ran the numbers, looked at what got slotted before, and traded in the danger of artistic risk for the well-worn laws of supply and demand. There’s a reasonable hope that, like any economy, the glut of product might be cut short if we stopped consuming it. But alas: to program Knife in the Clear Water in 2017 means programming it, under a different and presumably less tantalizing title, again and again and again.

On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

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First, what On the Beach at Night Alone is not. And because Hong often, though not always, makes films in pairs that profit from their proximity, let’s take Yourself and Yours as the template from which to trace the variations. The newest of his new works is not a particularly labyrinthine construct. Yourself and Yours arguably employed Hong’s loopiest structure in some time, with no intradiegetic scaffolding—a la Hill of Freedom—to guide the narrative’s many double helixes and lacking the log-line neatness of Right Now, Wrong Then’s rewind to be kind backpedaling. Yes, On the Beach at Night Alone redeploys the bifurcation that defined Hong’s biggest hit, but it hardly counted as innovation when he used it there either; Hong has long displayed an affinity for warped mirror halves. And anyways, the chapters that split On the Beach at Night Alone in two are, if taken at face value, drawn more sharply on geographical and temporal lines than metaphysical or meta-fictional divisions (though more on that later).

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Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

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Kelly Reichardt’s films speak with a particular and rather outmoded cadence, a sort of clenched-jaw Western laconism. American movies and American culture writ large no longer appear interested in such restraint; heroic pauciloquy died with Gary Cooper, or something like that. Our present heroes—and orange skinned villains—fill the air with unceasing clamor, armed with the gift of gab and hair-trigger. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se. A mythic America of tight-lipped fortitude probably never existed anyways, but it did form a national pop mythos as recently as a half century ago. As it fell out of vogue, cinema’s true believers largely retreated from multiplex screens and into the avant garde, though Clint Eastwood’s Sully was rightly hailed as a recent norm-deviating revival. Non-narrative cinema continues to offer modes of production and consumption amendable to restraint as an aesthetic and moral principle. The problem is that Peter Hutton’s or James Benning’s American landscapes probably aren’t coming to a theater near you (unless you live in Seattle, where the Northwest Film Forum is presenting a one-night-only, attendance-required selection of Hutton’s films next month). Their respective corpuses could not exist without the trail first blazed in Hollywood by someone like John Ford, himself an artist with a tendency to careen between laconism and good old Irish loquaciousness, but neither Hutton nor Benning possesses a conventional interest in storytelling that allowed Ford to thrive in a commercial industry. Enough with those pretty pictures, the people demand characters! Where is our Wyatt Earp? Where have all the strong, silent types gone? Kelly Reichardt knows.

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VIFF 2016: Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016)

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In the span of just two features (I can’t speak for the shorts) Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho has developed a truly indelible mise-en-scène. Architecture’s contour and form take center stage in front of Filho’s camera, his eye ever attuned to man’s geometric impositions on the world. Cavernous widescreen images locate everything within environmental context; it’s not enough to say that Filho’s characters are defined by the spaces they occupy. The spaces occupy them.

Filho’s dynamics of power concern primarily the dominance of hearth and home. In Neighboring Sounds, one familial clan holds sway over an entire city block, the ill-begotten gain of an unexplained original sin. There the family’s grip on their petty empire comes under attack from within by infiltrators lurking in the compound. Dona Clara, the materfamilias of Aquarius, is under siege from without. Greedy real estate developers have their eye on the eponymous apartment complex where she remains the last holdout. Clara’s life is housed in the walls of the Aquarius and Filho imbues every nook and every piece of furniture—including a particularly memorable dresser—with one woman’s personal history. Clara’s commitment to this place gets sketched out by Filho’s cartographic camera, but equal credit goes to the fire burning in Sonia Braga’s eyes. The legendary Brazilian actress almost seems to fight against Filho’s architectural sensibilities. Her hair alone is capable of commanding the screen, enveloping the widescreen frame in swaths of undulating black. It even demands its own chapter. Braga’s place in the mise-en-scène nurtures a productive friction between actor and director. But Filho occasionally opts for a smoother course elsewhere. To call Aquarius safe seems patently false: it caused some notable controversy in its home country after its premiere, though that’s possibly a result of the cast and crew’s public politics at Cannes more than the overt announcements of the film itself. But Filho doesn’t hide his aims either, and trying to cleave a wedge between the red carpet protest and what’s on screen is a fool’s errand. The struggle to control one old flat speaks volumes for Filho. If anything Aquarius‘s premise plays too neatly as metaphor—less, uh, termite, more white elephant. Not every film needs clandestine subtext, however, and Filho certainly isn’t the first auteur to use his second at-bat as a pretext for stylistic and thematic clarification, though I wonder if expansion rather than distillation might’ve made for a knottier movie. Still, methinks Filho has a masterpiece in him, so, thanks in large part to Braga’s ferocious performance, we’ll just have to settle for Aquarius being merely very good.

VIFF 2016: Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, 2016)


A comedy of remarriage as only Hong Sang-soo could imagine it, Yourself and Yours rearranges the familiar building blocks of social anxiety, sex, and—most of all—soju to tell the story of one couple’s breakup and reunion. Or, given that this is Hong’s protean world, perhaps it’s not a reunion at all but a new couple, newly formed. Key to this Hongian puzzlebox is Minjung, a young woman with a well-known love of drink recently sworn off the sauce at the behest of her boyfriend. Rumors of soju recitivism split the couple up and Minjung encounters two different men who profess to know her from the past. Minjung, for her part, claims no memory of them, offering up a suspicious twin sister look-a-like story or blank stares in response. The exact nature of these  misidentifications forms the film’s core mystery. It’s certainly possible that Minjung’s penchant for drink has obliterated these men from her mind, though it’s equally plausible that the self is an infinitely branching set of traits, often repeated and therefore identifiable, but always shifting emphasis, shape, and order, so also essentially unstable. Sounds like Hong’s movies.

Unlike his other recent features, Yourself and Yours offers no structural blueprint at the outset. Hill of Freedom‘s jumbled letters explain that film’s disorganized narration and Right Now, Wrong Then‘s initial title card (the inverted Wrong Then, Right Now) clues the attentive Hong viewer into the game being played. The dissipated dreaminess that governs Nobody’s Daughter Haewon comes closest, but with a crucial difference: Minjung does not appear to be dreaming. None of the strange happenings emanate from her consciousness. If anything, the unblinking earnestness of actress You-Young Lee’s performance ensures that Minjung remains a fixed point, no matter the cognitive dissonance she inflicts on the men around her. She is a mystery to others but never to herself.

That self-assurance allows Minjung to act the Hongian sage, the one character with sufficient wisdom to proffer extra-filmic advice: “Knowing is not as important as we think.” Perhaps that’s the only explanation for this hall of mirrors, though if this is a Stanley Cavellian comedy, as the final moments suggest, it’s one that takes his idea of transformation literally: “I am changed before your eyes, different so to speak from myself, hence not different. To see this you will have to correspondingly suffer metamorphosis.” Is Minjung’s mutable personhood just a screwball game to win back her lover, to make him transform? He can’t deny his partner’s true self (I drink therefore I am) and expect to keep her. So she wins. Is her victory a consequence of drunken forgetfulness, a spatiotemporal rupture, farcical roleplay? The beauty of Hong’s cinema lies in never having to choose.

American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)

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American Honey finds British filmmaker Andrea Arnold roughing it with the impoverished class of 21st century America, imagining life at the lower-rungs as a procession of scams and brutal poetry, strip malls and butterflies, and insisting with all of her not inconsiderable filmmaking power that this world and its inhabitants are worth taking seriously. Or, to summon up a different vision of American poverty: “Attention must be paid.” An admirable goal to be sure, but urgency and good intentions do not a movie make. Arnold bets the house on the compassion borne from her closely-hewn style, which locks into the perspective of Star, a young woman running from a broken home and towards her meager dreams, via a tight Academy ratio frame and shallow-focus close ups. This closeness ensures that no matter how flagrantly grating the behavior gets—and whoo-boy does it grate—our complicity with the events on screen remains intact. It’s shorthand for empathy; a stylistic shortcut particularly common to the aesthetic Arnold adopts, which she employs unceasingly over the film’s extended running time. Realism shouts and spits in your face, apparently. And with so many moments constructed to put the audience in a confrontational position (either step up or step out), it’s worth asking: when does a repeated plea for empathy become a form of condescension? Tell us over and over again that these caricatures are worth taking seriously as people and I might wonder if you yourself have some doubts.

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