Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
- Reviewed from the 2022 Berlinale
Try as one might to resist the lure of auteurism, and to consider every film strictly on its individual merits, there are some directors who confound that impulse. Hong Sangsoo could be the poster child for this conundrum: the prolific Korean director has made 15 chatty, winsome features in the last 10 years (admittedly, many of them barely scraping the minimum runtime definition of ‘feature-length’). Not only is it difficult to isolate each from its predecessors, it is also becoming harder to work out why we should bother: Hong lovers will love The Novelist’s Film for all the ways it recombines familiar elements; the Hong-indifferent will simply look right through it.
That’s not to say there is nothing new in his latest title, which took the runner-up Silver Bear at the 2022 Berlinale (the third time in as many years that Hong has won in Berlin). Working in unusually high-contrast black and white, the film – also shot, written and edited by the director – is a springy, slight treat that wryly comments on the filmmaking world, and even includes a sudden pop of colour. But really, the ongoing revelation of Hong’s filmography is that he can so often revisit themes and recycle scenes and recast from the same small pool of regular collaborators, yet every one of his films feels dipped in newness and a breezy spontaneity that feels like a gulp of fresh air.
Or perhaps, a glug of soju, or Chinese baijiu or, in The Novelist’s Film makgeolli, the slightly fizzy, milky rice wine that loosens the tongues and heightens the spiky camaraderie between author Junhee (Lee Hyeyoung), actress Kilsoo (Kim Minhee), bookstore owner Sewon (Seo Younghwa), poet Mansoo (Ki Joobong) and a sign-language student who works in the bookshop (Park Miso).
The centrepiece in a series of conversations sees this quintet gathered around a small table in Sewon’s home where Junhee announces her intention to make a short film. It will star Kilsoo, played by the luminous Kim Minhee, in a role whose self-reflexivity feels especially marked when she gets defensive at being told she’s “wasting” her talents.
Junhee has made the trek to the suburbs to reconnect with Sewon, who was herself a writer before quitting to run this little far away bookstore. Their first meeting is typical for Hong, an encounter laced with surprise, affection, gentle recrimination and slightly faulty shared memory. The women had lost touch. The elegant, e-smoking Junhee comments that Sewon has gained weight, then adds “It suits you”. Inside they have a coffee and, in a languid yet somehow riveting little sketch, Sewon’s starstruck assistant teaches Junhee a poetic phrase in sign language.
Later, Junhee bumps into director acquaintance Hyojin (Kwon Haehyo), who in turn introduces her to Kilsoo during a walk in the park. The director leaves and the two women – the not-working actress and the not-writing writer – bond in a cafe while a little girl stares in through the window, open-mouthed. When Kilsoo is invited for a drinking session, Junhee tags along, only to discover that Sewon is the hostess.
For some time now, Hong has been centring his loose, limpid storytelling on women, and Junhee, as embodied by Lee Hyeyoung – herself a Korean TV star whose movie career was rejuvenated by Hong’s superb last title In Front of your Face (2021) – is one of his most vivid heroines. Films this interested in presenting a rounded portrait of a woman of Junhee’s age are already pretty rare; films presenting this playful an account of an older woman’s frustrating yet fruitful relationship with her own creative impulses are hen’s teeth.
We never see the movie Junhee shoots, nor even the shooting of it. But then, as much as filmmaking, writing and creativity obsess these characters, Hong’s movie is far more fascinated by talking, listening, smelling the wildflowers, eating, drinking, even sleeping – the sensual, casual pleasures of spontaneous life as it happens.
During their boozy chat, Junhee riffs on a story outline and the poet Mansoo complains “Isn’t it too offhand?” For any other filmmaker, perhaps The Novelist’s Film would be. But with Hong Sangsoo – especially for those of us who’ve had our aha moment, after which his peripatetic, forgetful and imperfect musings on life and art become increasingly moreish – a sudden pivot to plottiness and neat narrative arcs would be a betrayal.
Hong’s 2017 film On the Beach at Night Alone was my turning point. If you haven’t found yours yet, it may not be The Novelist’s Film, which is stronger within the Hong continuum than it is without, but it will likely come in another two or ten film’s time. In the meantime, let me refill your glass.