Matt Turner


The Novelist’s Film – first-look review

Hong Sang-soo interrogates the function of art in his seemingly self-reflective latest feature.

Over 27 feature films made in about as many years, Hong Sang-soo’s style has become recognisable, utilising a familiar form that involves refining an established working method and iterating on ideas he is interested in.

For fans of Hong’s sensibility, this familiarity is not just comfortable but pleasurable, like living in the same home for an extended period and seeing how the mood of a room can be altered by variations in light and new furniture arrangements. The prolific filmmaker has always seemed eager to test out new scenarios, settings, and actor combinations. With The Novelist’s Film however, a film that is arguably more personal and self-interrogatory than his always self-reflexive work has ever been, Hong seems to be troubled by anxieties around artistic stagnation.

The story in The Novelist’s Film is simple. Novelist Junhee (Lee Hyeyoung) catches up with Sewon (Seo Younghwa), an old friend, before bumping into filmmaker Hyojin (Kwon Haehyo), who then introduces her to Kilsoo (Kim Minhee), an actress who is considering retirement. After expressing their mutual appreciation, these two new friends decide to make a short film together and the rest of the film is dominated by discussions about art’s function in society.

Kilsoo then brings Junhee to an impromptu drinks event she is invited to, only to learn that it is actually being hosted by Sewon, whose guest is Mansoo (Ki Joobong), a poet with whom Junhee shares a history. The guests then all talk together about the film, and about their frustrations with creativity, visibility, and artistic fulfilment.

As the time passes, The Novelist’s Film starts to feel increasingly interestingly metatextual. When Junhee discusses her writer’s block and describes her form of writing, her work sounds similar in style to Hong’s filmmaking. Feeling that her writing has become exaggerated and predictable, and that she often ends up getting stuck “inflating small things into something meaningful”, she says that she views filmmaking as a chance to create something more intuitive. Kilsoo asks what the film’s plot will be and Junhee says the “story is not so important”.

In an earlier scene, Hyojin describes filmmaking not as a craft but instead as a “compulsion.” In some scenes, it seems like Hong could be using these conversations to express frustration at the limits of his filmmaking process, whilst in others they read more like affirmations of the continual satisfaction he draws from his commitment to his method.

Up until an unexpected ending which ostensibly breaks the fourth wall, the form of The Novelist’s Film is mostly non-invasive, consisting largely of long takes featuring three or more characters all crammed within a medium shot image punctuated by the zooms that have been the director’s signature gesture.

Appearing as a film-within-the-film, the ending scene is surprising, because with it, The Novelist’s Film, which had until this point seemed gentle but still somewhat angst-ridden, starts to feel like one of the director’s sweetest films, registering ultimately as a touchingly sincere tribute to his life in filmmaking, and to love discovered through art-making.

Perhaps Hong will continue to find satisfaction producing films using his familiar philosophy and methodology, but what seems most exciting is the possibility that with this film the director may be signalling that wants to try something new altogether. Maybe Hong Sang-soo’s next film could be his first documentary?

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Published 17 Feb 2022

Tags: Berlin Film Festival Hong Sang-soo The Novelist’s Film

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