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: The Conclusion and the film Hong had at this year’s Seattle Film Festival, 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.
Set at Cannes, Kim Minhee plays a young woman named Manhee who is working as a film sales rep, in town with her boss (Chang Mihee) and the director (So Wansoo, played by Jung Jinyoung) they represent. The boss fires Manhee for the vague reason that she has discovered that she is "not an honest person". Manhee doesn’t understand, but accepts the dismissal with admirable cheerfulness (she insists the boss take a selfie with her to commemorate the occasion). In the next scene, with the boss and the director, we learn that the two of them are romantically involved and that Manhee has been fired because the director slept with her (so he claims, blaming, as usual with the Hongian man, alcohol).
Three days later, Manhee is still in town and spends her days walking to and from the beach, where she meets another Korean woman, a director with a short playing at the festival, who was Director So’s former student. We never see her again, though I’m now pretty sure it was actually this woman who slept with the director, who instead named Manhee to the boss when he was caught, which is also the basic plot of The Day After. Into the mix on this day comes Isabelle Huppert, playing Claire, a music teacher who is at the festival to support her friend, also a director. Claire meets Director So at a coffee shop, where the two of them carry on an awkward but friendly conversation, eventually ending up at a restaurant with the boss, where Claire takes their picture with her camera and explains that every time she takes a picture of a person, they change. The Koreans are surprised to discover in Claire’s collection a picture of Manhee, wearing makeup and and overcoat, which Claire claims she took earlier that morning, at a hotel rooftop party, where Manhee was very popular.
Then we cut to Manhee on the beach, during the day, alone, where Claire takes her photo and the two have an awkward but friendly conversation. Manhee offers to make Claire some Korean food and sings her a children’s song she has written (“all the numbers are important”). After leaving the beach, Claire returns to the restaurant to pick up her jacket, where she interrupts a drunken So breaking up with the boss, using some of the same language the boss used when firing Manhee (“I have to trust my judgement”). Claire and Manhee go to eat, and Manhee is surprised to find Director So’s picture among Claire’s collection. Claire explains that “he is a drunkard” and that she had lunch with him and a woman who was in love with him, which Manhee deduces is her boss. And now she says she knows why she was fired, but says she’ll only tell Claire later.
The next day (we can assume because it is the night of Director So’s premiere), Manhee is at what appears to be a rooftop party, wearing jean shorts and a T-shirt and enjoying a drink with Mark Peranson (he’s not named in the film, but apparently he’s playing “Paul” which was his character’s name in On the Beach as well, leaving open the possibility that in the Hong universe there are many Kim Minhees but only one Mark Peranson). Paul leaves to get Manhee another drink and she is approached by Director So, wearing his tuxedo. With all the drunken, chauvinistic belligerence of a Hongian hero gone wrong he berates Manhee for her appearance, for daring to wear “hot pants” in a public place, which is apparently in irreconcilable contradiction with her “beautiful soul” (a woman with a “beautiful soul” or who is a “good” (or “the best”) person is in the Hongian lexicon usually a euphemism for “a woman I want to sleep with”). He leaves and Claire, somewhere off-screen while all this is going on and not interfering, takes a photo, Manhee turns to her and tearily implores her, “don’t take pictures!” whereupon Claire runs off.
We then find Claire and Manhee, on what is apparently the previous day, retracing the steps of Manhee’s firing, returning to the café where it happened, tracking down the dog they each saw on the street there, while the earlier conversation rings in Manhee’s head (the first instance I can recall of Hong using this kind of memory voiceover). Manhee asks Claire why she takes photos and she says, “The only way to change things is to look at everything again, very slowly.” After a brief shot of the director, drunk, alone in his hotel room, Claire and Manhee return to Manhee’s apartment where, angry at the world, Manhee carves up a shirt into 22 pieces with a pair of scissors. Claire explains that the man she loved recently died, that he owned a bookstore and taught her to play the piano (which is a plot element from On the Beach). Then the boss shows up looking to talk to Manhee, possibly dressed as she is on the night of the gala. The film ends with Manhee back at work, packing up their sales office.
The biggest wildcard in the film’s chronology comes from the first picture Claire took of Manhee, the one with the makeup and overcoat. She’s not dressed like that on the day they meet, and the only time we even see her overcoat is in the hot pants scene, where it can be seen on the bench beside her, draped over her purse. That picture had to be taken before Claire met the director, and thus before Claire and Manhee meet on the beach. It can’t have been taken at the same party as the hot pants scene though, because when the director and boss see it they are both shocked that Manhee is still in town and at the amount of makeup she is wearing. Also confounding: the boss wears the exact same outfit on the day she fires Manhee and three days later, when she meets Claire, and also she appears to be wearing the same outfit the night of the premiere and the night before, when she apparently rehires Manhee. But she can’t have been hired before the gala, because at the party the director and her talk about her staying in town even though she got fired. It’s possible that the night Claire and Manhee recreate her firing takes place after the gala, with everyone just wearing the same clothes they were wearing before. Perhaps they all had to pack light and only brought a couple of outfits each (Manhee has three, the boss and director have two, and Claire has only one).
For while I was thinking that there were two Manhees (or more: many Manhees), the one who sleeps with the director and wears hot pants and the one who hangs out at the beach and gets fired. My latest theory (and I’m sure the fourth time I watch the movie I’ll have a new one) is that Claire is a time traveller. There are a couple of unexplained brief shots in the film: the first time Manhee is on the beach she looks into what appears to be a small tunnel among the rocks. Later, we see Claire on the beach by herself, where she walks into a similar but much larger tunnel, down a flight of stairs. This happens just before or after the hot pants scene, if I remember correctly. The theory is that the film shows two separate timelines. In the first, Manhee gets fired but doesn’t know why, Claire meets the director and the boss, and Manhee wears hot pants. In the second, Claire meets Manhee. Claire’s camera transforms the people from the first timeline when we move into the second. The hot pants-wearing, promiscuous Manhee from the first timeline is transformed into the demure children’s songwriting Manhee of the second. The director breaks up with the boss in the second timeline (the sky during this sequence at the restaurant is notably lighter than in the earlier scene, with Claire, which takes place in the first timeline). In this second world he’s an unrepentant drunkard, in the first an incorrigible flirt who blames alcohol for all his mistakes. I don’t think the boss changes though, which probably makes this whole sequence of events as bewildering for her as it is for us, and maybe that why she can’t articulate to Manhee why she’s being fired, because Manhee only slept with the director in the former world. Both Manhee and Director So allow Claire to keep the photos she took of them, while the boss keeps hers. The fact that Claire’s jacket is with the boss and director in the second restaurant scene had me doubting the timeline theory, but it’s possible she met with them in both timelines, but only met Manhee in the second one (while simply taking her picture in the first).
The important thing though is that none of this actually matters. Trying to solve a puzzle that can’t be reconciled is a lot of fun (well, for me it is), but the movie isn’t about a solution, it’s about the fact that observation changes things, which is another way of saying that everyone sees things differently and usually those differences are irreconcilable. We build our own narratives out of these ephemeral blocks of reality and more often than not, especially when alcohol and/or beautiful people are involved, we make a mess of things. But all the numbers are important.