Claire’s Camera (Hong Sangsoo, 2017)

2017 - Claire's Camera 4

Mysterious Object at Cannes

Claire’s Camera, barely over an hour long and shot in about a week at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, isn’t even the best Hong Sangsoo movie of the past year. That would be On the Beach at Night Alone. Nor is it likely to be the most popular, with The Day After, which like Claire’s Camera played at Cannes this year, more likely to attract an audience outside of Hong’s hardcore devotees, with a look and mood more in line with the masters of the European art film. But there isn’t a film this year that I’ve had more fun thinking about and rewatching than Claire’s Camera, with the possible exceptions of Baahubali 2 and the film Hong had at this year’s SIFF (and last year’s VIFF), Yourself and Yours. Every Hong film gets better the more times you watch it, his peculiarly fluid approach to reality and temporality make even the most basic elements of his scenarios matters for speculation, kaleidoscopic objects that shift not only meaning but cause and effect with every new viewing. But Claire’s Camera is exceptional in this regard. Each time I’ve seen it, I’ve had to invent a whole new theory of the film, none of which have so far managed to explain all the facts as they’re presented. Watching it is like trying to solve a puzzle in which several key pieces are missing. I’m going to try and work through it here, which will involve sorting through the plot in detail. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you should, it’s delightful. But you should probably stop reading now if spoilers concern you.

Continue reading

Advertisements

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

Claires-Camera-620x327

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 by 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.

Continue reading

Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo, 2016)

yourselfandyours_06

Yourself and Yours isn’t the latest film from South Korean director Hong Sangsoo, that would be On the Beach at Night Alone, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Berlin Film Festival (where it picked up a Best Actress award) and which Evan wrote about here last week (Evan has also written here about both Yourself and Yours and its trailer). Yourself and Yours may still come to Seattle Screens, Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then played here last summer, almost a year after its festival premiere in 2015. It’s probable that if it does, it won’t be until after another new Hong movie plays the Cannes Film Festival, as his Claire’s Camera is rumored to be finished by that time. With a director this prolific (since taking a year off in 2007, Hong has directed thirteen feature films in ten years) it’s easy for a film here or there to get lost in the mix, especially given the lethargic pace at which films today move from the festival circuit to the theatrical art house. The system simply isn’t designed, at present, for a director who releases a new film every nine months. This isn’t unique to Hong (the similarly prolific Johnnie To has had equally haphazard distribution) nor is it unique to the present (take a look sometime at the distribution schedule of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s period). But don’t let these institutional vagaries obscure the fact that Hong is in the midst of one of the great cinematic winning streaks, a frenetic burst of creative energy that comes along only a few times in a generation. And Yourself and Yours, seemingly already forgotten though it premiered just six months ago, epitomizes the greatness of that streak as well as anything.

Continue reading

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.

Yourself and Yours (Trailer) (Hong Sangsoo, 2016)

CpP1yitUIAAzR-A
Hong Sang-soo has a t-shirt. As reported by the seemingly omniscient Hong Sang-soo Web Twitter account, the 2016 Locarno Film Festival featured some sartorial branding inspired by last year’s top-prize recipient. If you were lucky enough to spend your August in a palatial Swiss town and decided that nothing said “European Summer” like shuffling between darkened movie theaters, you might have been lucky enough to snatch up one of the shirts, fittingly adorned with a tipsy sketch by the Korean master scrawled above the Hongian pseudo-motto: “Infinite Worlds Possible.” And just like that, with a major European festival prize now under his belt and branded UNIQLO-lite duds, it seems Hong has officially become an event.

Of course, we’re talking about the niche of the niche here. 18 films into his career Hong’s audience has grown more than some of the long-time loyalists likely thought possible, though he’s not exactly setting the box office ablaze. The yearly anticipation for his new film feels a bit more communal than it once did, still rolling around with the same regularity but with greater pomp among the ever-important Film Twitter cognoscenti. What self-respecting cine-kid doesn’t want a Hong shirt this time of year? It’s festival season. It’s Hong time. And right on cue, we got a trailer.

Continue reading

Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo, 2015)

rightnow1

The following is a slightly modified reprint of my review from last fall’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

The Hong Sangsoo film is a perennial highlight of every VIFF (I’ve seen Like You Know it All, Oki’s Movie, Hahaha, In Another Country, Our Sunhi and Hill of Freedomhere over the years) and Right Now, Wrong Then is no disappointment. It’s a very good film, while lacking the formal experimentation that distinguishes his best work (Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives) or the sheer giddy pleasure of his funniest movies (Hill of Freedom, In Another Country), it has a precision and focus that assures that, despite a certain conventionality, it will become one of his more popular features (note: This has turned out to be accurate, the film has garnered Hong some of the best reviews and one of the widest releases of his career so far). Split evenly in two halves, it follows a film director, in town for a festival showing and Q & A, as he wanders about a tourist site where he meets a young woman. They talk, drink soju, make awkward approaches at romance and ultimately split when the director is proven to be a dishonest, womanizing lout. Then the film resets, complete with a new title card (the first half is “Right Then, Wrong Now”, the second “Right Now, Wrong Then”) and we replay the same day but with significant differences. The director in this version is honest and open (perhaps to a fault, as when a drunken overheating compels him to strip naked in front of his companions). Hong significantly varies his camera setups in the second section, creating more balanced compositions where in the first half the setups tended to privilege the director’s perspective (including a Hong rarity: an actual POV shot). It’s a mature film, relaxed and confident with a simple truth to tell. But underlying it all is a palpable loneliness. It’s played as sadness, as tragedy in the first half, where the director’s faults lead to failure and angry isolation. In the second half, it’s a wistful melancholy, where people can find happiness in connecting with an other, with the full knowledge that any such connection is necessarily temporary. It’s a quiet and sweet film, a warm room on a cold night, and vice versa.

VIFF 2015: Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo, 2015)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN_key still (1)

The new Hong Sangsoo film, Right Now, Wrong Then, is very much concerned with the famed director’s usual themes. He is again at work with a story involving a hard-drinking filmmaker and the nature of casual encounters. But the movie is less about its surface than with an inquiry into its structural narrative. As always, it’s the differences from the works that came before it that excite. The nice thing about Right Now, Wrong Then is that it also affords the joys of differentiating it from itself.

Continue reading

Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg, 2015)

maxresdefaultIf there’s an equivalent to Hong Sangsoo in contemporary American cinema, I guess it may as well be Joe Swanberg. Both directors are wildly prolific, churning out tales of middle class ennui and relationship anxiety with frightening regularity. Both work with extremely low-budgets and high-quality actors, the result of the curious mix of critical acclaim and lack of box office their films achieve. Their films have a relaxed, naturalistic vibe in pace and performance, with lengthy scenes of actors seemingly just hanging out (and, more often than not, drinking). Of course, Hong is know for his structural experimentation, each film taking the form of a new exercise in narrative unreliability, where dreams and waking life, the past and the present, and multiple versions of reality all coexist in an unstable, purely cinematic universe. Swanberg, on the other hand, seems allergic to structure, shying away from anything that could be construed as plot, what can charitably be called an experiential vision of narrative. Hong always knows precisely where to place his camera, and once there, rarely moves but for an occasional ostentatious quick-zoom that serves to reframe the image and functions  as a stand-in for the emotional impact of editing. Swanberg apparently is aware that a camera is essential for the making of a motion picture.

Continue reading

Two Screwball Comedies: Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015) and She’s Funny That Way (Peter Bogdanovich, 2014)

575851.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx

The third of Noah Baumbach’s collaborations with actress/writer Greta Gerwig, following 2010’s Greenberg and 2012’s Frances Ha, Mistress America is their best film yet, and possibly the best work Baumbach has ever done, with or without her. For the first time in his career, he’s made a film that feels loose, free from the strained serious grasps at artistry that have plagued his career from the beginning, ranging from endearingly awkward in his debut, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming to really kind of irritating in what nonetheless remains his most critically successful film, The Squid and the Whale. A pure screwball companion to While We’re Young, the 2014 film that graced Seattle Screens just a few months ago, the two films form a hilarious portrait of our culture’s obsession with a certain kind of youth, a Manhattanite companion to Sylvia Chang’s brilliant exploration of Hong Kong womanhood, 20 30 40, in which the idiosyncrasies of three women of the eponymous ages are compared and contrasted. Where While We’re Young followed an older couple’s attempts to match coolness with a much younger pair while also somewhat clunkily exploring the interplay between authenticity in life and authenticity in art, this one focuses on a college freshman’s infatuation with her older future stepsister, a free spirit who makes New York seem as magical as it should be, while much more deftly exploring the oft-contentious relationship between an artist and the people who inspire their work. In both cases, the idyllic figure is a creative powerhouses in their early 30s, stable enough to enjoy a certain standard of living, but not so rooted as to avoid taking risks. It’s the age of sitcom heroes. Gerwig is a powerhouse as always (she’s already a three-time Endy Award winner, for her work in the Baumbach films and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) dogged in pursuit of her ideals and not nearly as ridiculous as she might first appear, her effervescence contains unfathomable depths and Lola Kirke is excellent as the younger woman, wide-eyed but with a steely determination that’s more than a little unnerving, the coldness of youth. There’s no fat in the film, it’s Baumbach’s tightest, most-focused work, for the first time he demonstrates the ease, the lack of apparent effort that marks a truly virtuosic film. The lengthy set piece at a Connecticut mansion is a classic of screwball escalation, as Baumbach ably piles a Sturgesian array of characters and relationships into a few crowded rooms.

shes-funny-that-way

More consciously seeking to recreate an old Hollywood vibe is the latest from Peter Bogdanovich, the refugee from the first golden age of cinephile directors who has found film work increasingly hard to find in recent years (this is his first theatrical fiction feature since 2001’s The Cat’s Meow). In fact, his new film is pretty hard to find as well, with an under-the-radar nationwide release (it opened on Seattle Screens with little fanfare last week at the Varsity, we’re it continues on a reduced schedule this week), a far cry from his generation-defining 70s masterpieces like The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc? or Paper Moon. Combing a theatrical farce reminiscent of his 1992 film Noises Off with the cosmic screwball romanticism of his 1981 masterpiece They All Laughed, She’s Funny That Way is a story told by a young woman (Imogen Poots) to a reporter (Illeana Douglas), the story of how she was discovered and her life changed from that of a hooker (with a heart of gold, naturally) to star of stage and screen. The story is wildly improbable, its reality questioned every step of the way by the reporter, but so seductive in its interconnections and coincidences as to be irresistible. The conflation of cinema as real life is charmingly seductive (print the legend), and the myth-making power of star cameos only adds to the glowing unreality. Familiar faces abound: contemporary icons like Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, older relics Austen Pendleton, Richard Lewis and Cybil Shepard, and up-and-comers like Poots, Will Forte and the always marvelous and perpetually under-utilized Kathryn Hahn and Rhys Ifans. Douglas herself provides a link to the old world the film idealizes: her grandfather Melvyn, in a different Lubitsch film, told Greta Garbo an even better joke than the one from Cluny Brown that serves as a key line for Owen Wilson’s character. While the film isn’t as existentially radical as They All Laughed, in a weird kind of way it’s Bogdanovich’s Hong Sangsoo film. Like with the greatest modern director of romantic comedies, She’s Funny That Way questions the very nature of the cinema’s relation to reality, reveling in the idealized illusions while simultaneously undermining their spell by pointing out their unreality. But where Hong relentlessly deconstructs his narratives, laying bare their artifices and exposing the lonely needs that drive us to invent them, Bogdanovich the classicist is content to faithfully recreate the form of the old (his zooms are subtle and patient, not Hong’s wild, drunken lurches), with nothing but a sly wink to the audience to remind us of the precariousness of our ideals. We know it’s all a lie, but we happily dream away nonetheless.

Mistress America is now playing at the Guild 45th, SIFF Uptown and Cinemark Lincoln Square.

She’s Funny That Way is now playing at the Varsity Theatre.