In 2015, while working on Right Now, Wrong Then, Hong Sang-soo began an affair with his lead actress, Kim Min-hee. The news came out later, at one of the film’s press conferences. Eventually, Hong filed for divorce from his wife of 30 years—and in the time since, he and Kim have chosen to openly explore the nature of their ongoing relationship through his films. First came 2016’s On the Beach Alone at Night, and now the Cannes competition entry The Day After and festival special screening Claire’s Camera.
On the Beach felt at times like a startling departure for Hong—a stark, melancholy drama about a young woman’s aimlessness and alienation in the wake of her affair with a married man, marked further by its uncommonly relaxed pacing and relatively straightforward filmmaking. Both The Day After and Claire’s Camera feel more immediately familiar, drawing as they do on established Hongian templates: The latter is one of his occasional, self-consciously austere, black-and-white dramas, while Claire’s Camera is a fish-out-of-water comedy of broken language, akin to 2012’s In Another Country and 2014’s Hill of Freedom. Both jump their lanes, as the comedic film has some emotionally harrowing moments and the drama some funny ones. They also continue the larger project of Hong’s filmography by finding insight through repetition, with Hong pushing forward with his new narrative direction and attempting to refine and develop the emotions at its core.
Sometimes the prolific South Korean filmmaker pushes the wrong way, and that’s what happens with The Day After, a film that wallows cynically and fairly shallowly in familiar relationship issues, and without adding new dimensions to them. The narrative involves a romantic triangle between the head of a book publishing house, Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-Hyo), his deeply suspicious wife, Hae-joo (Jo Yoon-hee), and his mistress, Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk), who is also one of Bong-wan’s employees—at least until their relationship goes south. When Chang-sook leaves her job, she’s replaced by Areum (Kim), an aspiring author who finds herself unwittingly thrown into the middle of Bong-wan’s messy life, as she’s mistaken for the mistress by Hae-joo.
The Day After‘s finest scenes translate all of this confusion into lengthy dialogue sequences wherein the characters attack each other over their perceived lack of morals and due to mutual distrust. These often feel like bitter, uncompromising expressions of the emotional fallout from Hong’s own affair: Kim’s true-life account of a confrontation with Hong’s wife, in particular, is very similar to a scene between Areum and Hae-joo in the film. But those weightier interactions are absorbed into a plot that’s just a little too calculated, especially one structural trick that uses Hong’s love of “doubling” to make it seem like the narrative is going through a reset, when it’s actually just playing off one character’s bad memory.
This prototypical Hong production just doesn’t have enough to differentiate it from the filmmaker’s other ones. In fact, the only thing that feels slightly new in The Day After is the degree to which the film allows for things to go the way that its pathetic, self-pitying central character wants them to. And by the end, that level of indulgence isn’t sufficiently interrogated.
Thankfully, the breezy Claire’s Camera isn’t only charming and funny, but also one of Hong’s most formally intuitive and sharply written films in some time, and the best of the three works he’s made that draw on his relationship with Kim. It’s also, appropriately enough, set in Cannes, shot during the festival last year. It follows the boozy exploits of film director So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young)—clearly modeled on Hong, right down to the name similarity—who wanders through Cannes with his longtime romantic partner, Nam Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee), and tries to justify an affair with their company’s just-fired sales agent, Man-hee (Kim). In addition to So, there’s another Hong surrogate: a French photographer, Claire (Isabelle Huppert), who, by chance, meets Man-hee on the beach and takes her photograph. Huppert’s Claire is given frivolously funny lines (“It’s my first time in Cannes!” got big laughs with audiences), but also crucially meaningful ones, like her knowing observation that the only way to change things is to look at everything again slowly.
It matters that Hong doesn’t necessarily side with that sentiment, and even less so with So’s boorish antics; instead, he seems most sympathetic to Man-hee’s emotional distress. During one party-set scene, Claire snaps a photo of Man-hee, who’s crying after having been lectured by So. The girl’s pained protest (“Don’t take pictures!”) speaks volumes about Hong’s awareness of the toll this autobiographical project could be taking. It also makes the final scene here—one of Man-hee vigorously taping-up boxes and preparing for her departure from Cannes—a perfect place to leave things, and even an indicator that, while projecting change for this filmmaker is never a good idea, Claire’s Camera may represent a closing of this particular chapter in Hong’s career.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.