There is a small but growing belief among critics that just as Hong Sangsoo is closing in on legendary status (festival ubiquity; evangelized by Richard Brody; Kim Min-hee ranks 17th on the New York Times‘The 25 Best Actors of the 21st Century, etc.), his part could finally become stale. Whichever way you fall (no mutiny here), it will always be difficult to resist the calm and casual charms of a work like The novelist’s film: a story about the creative process, shot in soft black and white, and a midrange addition that won the Grand Jury’s Silver Bear at the Berlinale, its most prestigious award to date.
Writers, poets, directors, film students, wacky zooms, lots of booze (not soju this time but Makgeolli, a milkier rice wine that comes in a plastic bottle; how’s it going this for innovation) – all of them, of course, are present and taken into account here. Anyone familiar with Hong’s work will know the clues all too well; what is sometimes more interesting is to find breaks with the norm. As in Right now, wrong thena film that looks more and more like its masterpiece, spotting the variations is half the game. The novelist‘s film, it weaves a web of interconnected characters. Lee Hyeyoung plays Junhee, a renowned and once prolific author. The film begins with her visiting an old friend, Sewon (Seo Younghwa), who has given up writing to run a bookstore. She then goes up to the observation deck of a tower and meets a filmmaker, Hyojin (Kwon Haehyo.) Later, walking together in the park outside, they meet Kilsoo (Kim), a famous actress (and the eponymous wife – her novelist never appears) who also needs inspiration. When one thing leads to another – a ramen restaurant here, a drunken night out in the bookstore there – the two women decide to make a movie together.
Hong’s dialogue is more pointed and self-reflective than ever. After cursory greetings and compliments (someone, of course, tells Kim’s character how pretty she is), many of the conversations between Junhee and the people she meets become edgy, full of sharp comments prompted by a litany of small and big disappointments. (Sewon didn’t comment on his book; Hyojin was supposed to adapt one of his novels but never did.) Some of them sound like Hong’s self-criticism. “I’m exaggerating too much,” Junhee says; she also later admits to growing tired of his plotless style of writing. Kilsoo and Junhee are inspired to collaborate together when Junhee lashes out at Hyojin for telling Kilsoo that she was wasting her time by not taking roles in commercial films. Hong’s ensemble suggests a small kaleidoscope of struggles and creative endeavours: from Sewon’s loss of faith to Junhee and Kilsoo’s artistic impasses, and of course their decision to team up and put on something (indeed, nothing) the low. There’s a hint of Hong, you can feel it, in everyone. (With all this, The novelist’s film can feel self-aware to the point of parody. Almost.)
If Hong’s oeuvre can be divided into his best-funded and most ambitious works (Alone on the beach at night, the running woman, etc.), and micro-budgeting efforts that pop up in the meantime (like last year introductionor the excellent Grass), The novelist’s film probably belongs to the latter. It’s a modest movie, but a lighter Hong than we’ve seen in a while, even The running woman, among his most colorful films, felt drenched in melancholy – and especially at the end, when we are shown what Junhee and Kilsoo have been working on together. Shot by hand like a home movie, and running the entire film in color, it first appears as an amateurish, awkward love letter to Min-hee (she likes a sustained close-up and is holding flowers), but Hong’s latest, which was made during COVID restrictions, with many masks on display, and for which Hong shot, edited and even composed the score – is ultimately a small ode to expression itself.
The novelist’s film premiered at the 2022 Berlinale and will be released by Cinema Guild.