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‘The Novelist’s Film’ shows how the artistic life is incomprehensible to the outsider.
I wonder if Kim Min-hee knew what she was signing up for when she publicly became Hong Sang-soo’s life partner in addition to his creative one. Starting from , Hong’s first effort after his affair and divorce came to light, his films have often excavated various aspects of the situation, with Kim sometimes cast in the muse/lover/mistress role. The Novelist’s Film (2022), shot by Hong almost entirely on (what looks like) high-contrast black and white DV, arrives in the same vein.
I should note that Kim’s Gil-soo, an actor who’s left the biz, doesn’t appear till about a third of the way in. The protagonist is Jun-hee (Lee Hye-young), a writer who feels like she’s losing her spark. To shake things up, she leaves Seoul to visit a friend (Seo Young-hwa) who used to write but now owns a bookstore. Jun-hee runs into her as she’s chewing out her assistant, Hyun-woo (Park Mi-so). One encounter leads to another, and meeting Gil-soo leads to a coincidental drinking gathering at the bookstore with yet another old friend, bombastic poet Man-soo (Gi Ju-bong). Jun-hee sees a kindred spirit in Gil-soo and has the idea to cast her and her husband in a short film. We see a small part of that film; then, with a short coda, we’re out.
We don’t walk into a Hong film seeking technical brilliance. Here he does everything himself but the sound (by Seo Ji-hoon; Kim is production manager under Hong as producer), and his working methods involve a notable lack of rehearsal. All to say that he has complete creative freedom, free even from his actors’ inputs (they haven’t had time to sink deep into character) — for good and for ill, sometimes both at the same time.
The ill is his meandering, monotone dialogue scenes, with gemstones of barbed observation smothered by the conventional politeness of Korean interactions. But each bidirectional interaction helps set the stage for Hong’s forte: the alcohol-drenched gathering. We know that the characters share varying degrees of intimacy with each other, so when the five aforementioned characters sit at table, what we expect to be a convivial occasion is revealed to be a crisscross of bilateral conversations, as many such gatherings actually are.
On top of that, the three working artists end up forming a clique, with the bookstore owner and her assistant out in the cold. The owner is miffed that she never knew two of her oldest friends were themselves old friends (“That’s because we never told you!” Man-soo guffaws); her assistant is starstruck, pouring drinks and compliments for the three. The artists are made oblivious by drink, and the contrast is so awkward it’s hilarious.
But it also argues for my interpretation of the film: that it’s about how the artistic life is incomprehensible to the outsider. The bookstore owner has given up art for business; Hyun-woo used to act but now, at the tender age of 33, has retired to learn sign language. They don’t understand the lifelong commitment that is the artistic life. Commercial art doesn’t count, either: One of the acquaintances Jun-hee meets is Hyo-jin (Kwon Hae-hyo), a mainstream film director who gave up on adapting one of Jun-hee’s works after the financing fell through. When he chastises Gil-soo for giving up her acting career when she has so much talent and so many fans, Jun-hee tears into him for not respecting her life choices, giving voice to anyone who’s had to endure a “You’re so good at this, it’s a pity you don’t work harder” from a well-meaning acquaintance or family member. A talent isn’t a vocation.
Jun-hee says she’s inspired to make her first film by meeting Gil-soo, turning yet another Kim character into a muse. In the small snippet we get to see, Gil-soo’s character weaves a bouquet out of wildflowers and autumn leaves and offers it to the man behind the handheld camera, who’s most likely her husband but whom we never see and very seldom hear. If he is her husband, the actor is uncredited; he could also be Gil-soo’s film student nephew (Ha Seong-guk); either way, we’re meant to think of Hong. (Cheekily, Hong has the credits play after this sequence instead of at the end of the film proper.)
Gil-soo watches the film alone at a special theatrical screening. When she emerges from the screening room, her nephew and Jun-hee, who said they’d be there waiting for her, aren’t. For a few seconds, she’s left alone with her thoughts, and we feel the purity of art, how isolated the circuit is from the artist to the work and back. The impact of all art is on the individual first, and the burden of creating and fashioning that individual impact is shouldered by each artist in their own way, even when working together.
Then, a theater employee (Lee Eun-mi) tells Gil-soo that her company is probably on the roof, and Gil-soo boards an elevator, leaving us with a frame devoid of people, alone with the art.
The Novelist’s Film is currently streaming.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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