Everyone has at least one story to tell inside him, and the hero of “The Russian Novel”, a small but interesting South Korean movie about writing, has many stories to tell, and he is eager to get his stories read by others who may recognize him as a real writer. As reflected in his stories frequently quoted on the screen throughout the movie, it seems he will eventually publish his book, and the movie tells us how he comes to write them in its engaging and humorous way as he bumbles around a small world of writers like a clueless child who still needs to grow up and learn more.
As a matter of fact, he really needs to learn more about writing – especially about how to write properly enough to hold the attention of readers. As some of the characters around him sharply point out, his writing skill is hampered by many external flaws including incorrect grammar and awkward sentences even though the stories themselves indeed sound interesting. The movie begins with the serenely foggy opening scene at the lake both depicting and narrating the opening paragraph of one of his stories, and you can see his story is worthwhile to read despite his problematic writing skills.
Sin-hyo(Kang Shin-hyo) knows too well that he really needs to polish his writing skill further. He did not even go to high school due to his poor household condition, but, since he was inspired by the novels written by a famous writer named Kim Ki-jin, he has tried hard to write something good while working in a factory to earn his living, and he also tries to get any helpful tips from the writers with whom he hangs out at several places including the workshop belonging to Kim Ki-jin.
This sounds desperate to you, but the movie is actually funny and silly at times as watching Sin-hyo bouncing around other writers with no particular result. Driven by the inferiority complex fueled by his envy toward the writers who looks more educated and more knowledgeable than him, Sin-hyo keeps emphasizing his uneducated background to others, and that becomes a running gag throughout the first half of the movie because, mainly due to his self-absorbed ego as a writer, he rarely advances from where he was at the beginning. Any good writer should know that he/she must read a lot while writing a lot, but, my god, this guy does not even try to read anything besides the books written by his worshiped writer just because he cannot read other books due to the lack of interest. To be frank with you, while watching the movie, I personally wanted to slap this guy with “On Writing”, Stephen King’s invaluable book about writing which emphasizes many things including reading books as many as possible – and using correct grammars.
The movie playfully rotates a bunch of literate characters around this silly guy as their thoughts and feelings are reflected on the screen through the texts narrated by him or them, and it is gradually revealed to us that his experiences with them will become a source of inspiration for our aspiring writer. While Kim Ki-jin seems to be out of reach for everyone in the movie, it looks like his son Seong-hwan(Kyeong Seong-hwan) is the only one who can arrange private meeting with his father. Miserably living in the shadow of his famous father, he spends most of his time on a mediocre stage play which he puts on the stage every year, and he has no desire to be a writer even though he knows two or three things about writing.
In case of Jeong-seok(Kim Jeong-seok), a middle-aged writer stuck in writer’s block, he seems to be more interested in fishing than writing, and a young talented newcomer Gyeong-min(Lee Gyeong-min) is rather cold to Sin-hyo while focusing on her writing, but Sin-hyo finds himself drawn to her and her talent. While talking with her, he keeps saying “even though you’re young”, and that phrase becomes another running gag in the film.
This certainly makes his No.1 fan Jae-hye(Lee Jae-hye) very unhappy. Although she is as knowledgeable as Sin-hyo in case of writing, she believes in his writings as a devoted supporter, and she sticks to him even when he is at the bottom, though her loyalty and devotion are not appreciated much by him. We also have a teenager girl named Ga-rim(Lee Bit-na), and this quiet but seemingly observant girl is my favorite character in the movie. One of the best moments in the film is the scene in which she make a comment so shrewd and insightful on Sin-hyo’s writing even though she has absolutely no interest in being a writer or attending school, and Lee Bit-na brings a considerable degree of innocent liveliness to the grey, melancholic tone shrouding other characters.
As far as I can see, the first half of the movie is around 80 minutes, so that could have been enough for a feature-length film, but the movie goes forward to 27 years later to start its second part, and that is where the movie becomes far less interesting than before. After writing several stories, Sin-hyo happens to be thrown into comatose state, and, when he miraculously wakes up as a middle aged-man now played by Kim In-soo, the world has changed a lot along with him, and there are some big surprises waiting for him.
The mystery associated with these surprises is neither compelling nor believable especially if you are familiar with publishing business or you have ever read “On Writing”, and there are glaring mistakes made by the director/screenplay writer Shin yeon-sik everywhere in the second half of the movie. I understand Sin-hyo is pretty ignorant about publishing and writing, so I can pass a silly scene where he accuses his publisher of meddling with his writings, but I find it pretty implausible that he can give lectures on his works even though he does not read any single published word of his – and he seems to have no interest in reading his published works until he comes to be reminded of something strange. Seriously, how can that be possible?
Because of these flaws, the second half of the movie, which focuses on the identity of a guy who corrected and modified Sin-hyo’s works while he was in the hospital, feels like a long, dragging epilogue rather than an equal part complementing the first half. Whoever did that job secretly, he(or she) did Sin-hyo a big favor because Sin-hyo is now regarded as one of the most revered writers in South Korea, so there is not much to complain or angry about, isn’t it?
Despite my dissatisfaction with this part, I enjoyed its first part with lots of amusement, and that is enough for me to give this flawed but fascinating film 3 stars instead of 2.5 stars. The director Shin Yeon-sik gives us a solid film supported by the good performances from his cast as well as two good contrasting moods in the movie, and its long running time(140-minutes) is less burdensome than expected, and the movie feels like reading a nice big book during one uneventful afternoon. But still, I think he could have done more proofreading while writing his screenplay.