This article appeared in the November 3, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Novelist’s Film (Hong Sangsoo, 2022)
Starting with 2018’s austere Hotel by the River and culminating with the new The Novelist’s Film, Hong Sangsoo’s recent works are steeped in an awareness of mortality and inclined toward self-reflection. Death casts a looming shadow in these movies, most explicitly in the devastating In Front of Your Face (2021), though it does not weigh them down. The lightness of touch that characterizes Hong’s best work is still evident in these films, but it is counterbalanced by a Beckettian preoccupation with all that might go unsaid in our exchanges with others, and how much of that is worth saying before the proverbial curtain drops. The theme of communication is not new for Hong—it was a central focus of his earlier, more literary films (including my personal favorite, 2004’s Woman is the Future of Man) that preceded Tale of Cinema (2005), one of several turning points (or gates?) in his pilgrim’s progress—but here, it returns with a renewed intensity, perhaps motivated by Hong’s growing consciousness of an encroaching silence.
In The Novelist’s Film—as in Introduction (2021) and In Front of Your Face—Hong strips away any overt narrative trickery in favor of a seemingly linear, visually spare story. The titular author here is Jun-hee (Lee Hye-young, who also starred as a prematurely retired and terminally ill actress in In Front of Your Face), a highly respected writer whom the film follows through a series of chatty encounters over the course of a day. Her diurnal journey of self-discovery and reinvention is initially inspired by her desire to catch up with an old friend and frustrated former colleague, Se-won (Seo Young-hwa), who now runs a bookstore in the suburbs of Seoul. She then happens upon a filmmaker acquaintance, Director Park (Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo), and his wife, before bumping into a reclusive, leather jacket–clad starlet, Kil-soo (Kim Min-hee, Hong’s partner and production manager). The two women immediately hit it off, and Jun-hee, inspired by the actress’s nonconformist attitude, impulsively proposes that they make a film together. Perhaps inevitably for a Hong production, the day ends with an imbibing session at the bookstore, where Jun-hee, Kil-soo, and Se-won are joined by Jun-hee’s old friend, a gently patronizing poet (Ki Joo-bong) who swears by alcohol as a cure for writer’s block.
A moment early in the film brilliantly crystallizes the inadequacy—the gestural vagueness—of language. Jun-hee asks Se-won’s bedraggled assistant (Park Mi-so) to translate a few lines of seemingly banal poetry into sign language: “The day is still bright, but soon it grows dark / While the day lingers, let’s enjoy a nice walk.” As the young woman demonstrates the signs, and Jun-hee repeats the words for her, the simple verse becomes freighted with intimations of mortality. The scene ends with the two simply signing the phrases back and forth to one another, a silence falling over the room as their words dissipate like the light of day. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that “if the possible uses of a word do float before us in half-shades as we say or hear it—this simply goes for us. But we communicate with other people without knowing if they have this experience too.” In The Novelist’s Film, Hong plays masterfully with the half-shades of words and images that float between two people, never fully comprehensible to both, before dissolving into an inevitable silence. But where silence evokes madness or death in the case of Wittgenstein, Hong is animated by an endearing curiosity about the ways in which people make sense of an ineffable world through the blunt tools of language.
Jun-hee’s fiercely (and perhaps counterproductively) idealistic approach to artistic practice is crystallized during her conversation with Park and his careerist wife. The director explains how he’s been able to keep making films into late middle age, even as his “compulsion” to work has flagged: “Before, I thought my life was shit, so I just focused on filmmaking… But my thinking changed. Fix your life first.” Jun-hee excoriates the director for what she sees as his complacency and his unwillingness to give up fame, money, and security for his cinema. She sees Park, with his savvy compromises and his work/life balance, as incapable of understanding the sacrifice required by art–making. Expressed with surprising vehemence by Lee Hye-young, this rant against professionalism comes, over the course of film, to define the novelist’s philosophy. Park and Jun-hee might be read as representations of the two competing impulses in every artist—including, perhaps, the prolific yet steadfastly independent Hong, who famously avoids the trappings of professional film sets. Per the brief credits, he kept it D.I.Y. on The Novelist’s Film, writing, directing, producing, shooting, and editing the movie himself, in addition to composing and performing the score.
The central relationship in the film, however, is between Jun-hee and Kil-soo, who is herself a stalled artist—though it’s never made clear why she stopped working. What is clear is that her decision to walk away from acting was voluntary. This is not the predicament of Jun-hee: over a meal of tteokbokki and ramen, she tells Kil-soo that she’s blocked, and that her writing has come to feel “exaggerated… like I have to keep inflating small things into something meaningful.” Jun-hee’s proposed solution is to make a film with Kil-soo and the actress’s ceramicist husband. She seems to believe that by filming two real people in a real relationship, enacting the simplest of fictions, she can access some essential truth that she can’t reach through language alone, given all its unwieldiness and imprecision. “All of the feelings, glances, and gestures between them… I want to capture that with the camera,” she tells Kil-soo in an earlier conversation. “Everything has to be comfortable. Everything has to be real.”
One wonders if Jun-hee is voicing Hong’s own anxieties. For most of his career, Hong has emphasized the formal tricks of storytelling as a means of eliciting social and existential verities from his characters. In the films he has made over the last few years, however, he seems to be moving toward an almost aleatoric simplicity, which imparts the sense that life, as is, is as rich with the ellipses of time and communication as any complex narrative. The Novelist’s Film takes this minimalism to a striking end point in its closing scene. The movie is shot in ultra-saturated black and white that isolates the characters in swathes of blown-out light, like actors on a stage. The final scene, however, suddenly bursts into color midway through, with Hong’s handheld camera following Kim as she wanders through a park, picking flowers. It’s a singular moment in Hong’s cinema: an instance, it would seem, of pure documentary. There is no “director” here, no artist, just a person capturing images of his beloved. When, in the last shot, the director mutters, almost inaudibly, “I love you,” that most generic of phrases is effortlessly re-inflated with precise, powerful meaning.