Berlinale 2022 review: The Novelist’s Film (Hong Sang-soo)

“Crucially, however, Hong is careful not to overplay the gimmicky meta card and presents such ruminations about his approach to cinema in a refreshingly clear, transparent manner.”

Hong Sang-soo returns to Berlin with his most eloquent and fully realized film in many years with The Novelist’s Film, which earned the South Korean master the festival’s runner-up Grand Jury Prize (his third Silver Bear win in three years). As prolific as ever, Hong frequently alternates between structurally playful but relatively modest efforts and more ambitious projects rooted in achingly honest self-reflection. The Novelist’s Film firmly belongs in the latter category and offers a thoughtful exploration of storytelling, the creative process, and perhaps most importantly, the gradual loss of one’s will to create. Like many of Hong’s past works, this superbly performed piece should travel widely on the festival circuit and delight the director’s loyal fans upon its theatrical release.

Taking place mostly over the course of a warm late-winter day outside Seoul, The Novelist’s Film follows Junhee, an acclaimed writer, as she visits a former friend and colleague who apparently has stopped writing, moved out of the city, and opened a bookstore. The first encounter in the bookstore features the recitation of a beautiful poem, also conveyed in sign language, about a bright day approaching its dark conclusion and the possibility of taking a walk during that brief interval before sunset. After leaving the bookstore and running into a film director she once planned to collaborate with, Junhee goes on a walk that is reminiscent of the poem and meets Kilsoo, a young actress on an indefinite hiatus, on the walking path. Gradually these seemingly coincidental encounters form a clever, cyclical structure and Junhee finds herself back in the bookstore with Kilsoo, this time sharing a meal and more than a few drinks in the signature Hong sequence that brings several characters together.

The first couple of scenes carry hints of unresolved misunderstandings and perhaps some more painful feelings hidden behind all the politeness on display. The bookstore owner mentions how she always felt the pressure to read certain types of books and says that she has finally decided to read only what attracts her attention. Buried in this exchange may (or may not) be the implication that her friend is no longer interested in Junhee’s work, and it is possible to sense an undercurrent of reproach despite the friendly way the two women address each other. Similarly, the film director is not exactly thrilled to see Junhee and even attempts to hide from her until his wife brings them together. Hong is a master of creating such awkward and kind, but slightly uncomfortable instances of human interaction. The Novelist’s Film once again proves that even the most trivial, seemingly insignificant remarks can reveal volumes about the characters in a Hong film. This unexpressed tension is also useful in highlighting the good rapport between Junhee and Kilsoo. In contrast to her encounters with the bookstore owner or the film director, Junhee is able to communicate freely and honestly with Kilsoo shortly after meeting her for the first time.

The title refers to the short film Junhee wants to make with Kilsoo and, responding to a film student who will take care of the technical aspects of this project, Junhee explains that she has no interest in making a documentary. Her approach may seem casual at first, but she is actually very meticulous in crafting a story whose loose and airy structure can allow truthful details to emerge organically. This is only one of the many nicely articulated ideas that can be applied both to the film within The Novelist’s Film, and also to Hong’s unique filmmaking practice in general. Crucially, however, Hong is careful not to overplay the gimmicky meta card and presents such ruminations about his approach to cinema in a refreshingly clear, transparent manner. Junhee talks about her desire to “see” her actors as freely as possible and capturing what they “radiate” through her film. She later admits that she finds the act of writing increasingly difficult as things that once came naturally and effortlessly to her now require a painful process of over-writing and exaggeration. In Junhee (and by extension Hong), we find a rare artist openly grappling with the effects of time on their pursuit of creativity.

Kilsoo is equally introspective about her career, embracing her break from acting as a peaceful and necessary step in her life, despite the disapproval of her colleagues who accuse her of wasting her talent. The extensive conversations between Junhee and Kilsoo give two of Hong’s most gifted collaborators the opportunity to create wonderfully multi-layered characters, drawing extensively from each other’s performances. While the ensemble in The Novelist’s Film is uniformly excellent, Lee Hye-young (who recently won the International Cinephile Society’s Best Actress award for her memorable turn in Hong’s previous film In Front of Your Face) and Kim Min-hee (a deserving Silver Bear winner herself in 2017 for On the Beach at Night Alone) particularly stand out. For admirers of Hong’s cinema, seeing these two immensely talented actresses together on screen is a tremendous pleasure.

After a long evening of drinking in the bookstore (no soju in sight this time, but plenty of makgeolli on offer), The Novelist’s Film jumps ahead to a screening of Junhee’s collaboration with Kilsoo. This is an occasion that will be familiar to those who follow Hong’s work; one of the most beautiful visual motifs to emerge in contemporary world cinema in recent years (Kim Min-hee alone in a cinema, watching films in films directed by Hong Sang-soo) is recreated as Kilsoo takes her seat in the screening room. In this case, much like the comparable scenes in On the Beach at Night Alone, The Woman Who Ran, and Right Now, Wrong Then, the experience of watching a film proves to be unexpectedly contemplative for Kim’s character. As The Novelist’s Film approaches one of the loveliest endings in Hong’s entire body of work, we (just like Kilsoo) are invited to contemplate on this sophisticated, deeply personal meditation on lives shaped by artistic endeavors.