The Novelist’s Film feels more diaristic than anything Hong has made before and results in what’s arguably his most emotive and personal film.
One of the most pleasurable ways to engage with a Hong Sang-soo film is to consider the similarities and differences between each new movie and his previous works. He makes it easy: Hong’s oeuvre is a constantly expanding, self-referential examination of artistry, relationships, and life itself, and such themes are carried through within formal constraints that have largely remained the same across his decades-long career. Any slight variation ends up feeling crucial, and the major distinguishing feature of The Novelist’s Film is an insistence on artistic freedom; characters are constantly craving it, and it’s obvious that Hong still is too.
The film opens with the accomplished writer Junhee (Lee Hye-young) entering a bookstore, and Hong lines up her scarf with the similarly patterned curtain behind her. It’s the only moment when she seems to blend into the background — the film uses black-and-white photography and high contrast to otherwise constantly highlight its characters. As she talks with the bookstore’s owner, an old colleague named Sewon (Seo Young-hwa), personal desires start to unravel. Sewon has stopped writing and can’t imagine doing so ever again. Hong couples this characterization with a comment from Junhee that Sewon has gained weight. “I’ve lost all discipline,” the latter laughs.
The messaging here is that an abandonment of artistic pursuits is tantamount to personal failure, but this notion ends up proving false. We learn that Sewon is actually happier than ever: She’s begun caring less about what others think, and finds joy in only reading what interests her — the critical commentariat is of little importance now. Junhee wants to shake things up too, and strives to create a movie. With each conversation she has, we begin to learn more about Hong’s current thoughts. At times, insight comes courtesy of his signature zooms. The first one arrives when Junhee finds delight in someone teaching her sign language; this wordless communication showcases how something so simple can unlock a new longing for expression. A more dramatic zoom appears when Junhee looks from inside a building to the landscape outside; one senses a deep yearning for acting on one’s ambitions, and that doing so will lead to something both introspective and boundless.
Vague feelings about Hong’s intentions become concretized through dialogue. Junhee is going through a writer’s block, and it’s partly a result of her works’ reception. “I have to keep inflating small things into something meaningful,” she says. “I have to pretend I’m the kind of person who always felt those things.” She feels far removed from the sort of evaluations that Hong’s own films receive. When she meets director Hyojin (Kwon Hae-hyo), he describes how his drive toward filmmaking has changed, that he doesn’t worry about feeling lax or no longer having specific compulsions to create. Hearing these comments from these two actors is significant: Kwon has been a Hong mainstay for the last decade, a period in which his films have become increasingly loose and light. Lee has acted in films by influential Korean directors like Im Kwon-taek and Jang Sun-woo, the latter of whom is a forebear to Hong’s stark depictions of Korean society through interpersonal relationships. Notably, her first film since 2008 was Hong’s In Front of Your Face (2021), and her acting is subtle, matter-of-fact, and expressive in a way that suits Hong’s needs. As Junhee becomes more confident in her artistic pursuits through everyone she meets, so too has Hong become more certain of his stylistic choices with each new actor defining his works.
Junhee is most inspired to follow through with her film when meeting Kilsoo, an actress who is played by Hong’s muse Kim Min-hee. Things are an even more obvious reflection of Hong’s life when Junhee and Kilsoo talk about their movie — one where the “story’s not important” but is exciting because it’s true to life. They discuss with others over drinks, though it’s with makgeolli instead of Hong’s characteristic soju. It’s a sly move that has one cycling through a bunch of thoughts. Is this a marker for a new era? Is the rice wine’s white color meant to complement the grayscale images? Are these bottles just here because it’s what Hong was drinking when having similar conversations? But such questioning feels unimportant as the scene continues. After hearing Junhee’s suggested plot, one person complains, “Don’t you need something to pull people in?” Kilsoo’s response, as before, is that it doesn’t matter. Their film is meaningful because the story “really happened.”
In a delightful finale, Hong commits to his most openly emotive and personal filmmaking to date. It’s meant to feel like the film we’ve been hearing about, but it’s clearly Hong just wanting to shoot Kim with endearing affection. She holds up flowers, sings the melody of the “Bridal Chorus,” and the two say “I love you.” At her suggestion, these black-and-white images turn into color. Here, in a moment that feels more like a diary film than anything Hong’s ever made, he’s acted on all the thoughts we’ve heard from The Novelist’s Film’s characters. Earlier, when Hyojin is reflecting on his life of directing, he notes his secret was to “fix life first” instead of using films as a way to avoid doing so. The Novelist’s Film is a testament to exactly that. In loving Kim, in following his own path, and in finding confidence to simply document life, Hong has found a rejuvenating joy that’s extended his creative appetite and is palpably life-affirming.
Originally published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.