The Novelist’s Film (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): How they come to make a film

As I said many times before, my history with Hong Sang-soo’s films has been rather complicated. During the time when I became a bit more serious about films, “Tale of Cinema” (2005) and “Woman on the Beach” (2006) felt like an acquired taste to me, but I became more enthusiastic around the time of “Hahaha” (2010) and “Oki’s Movie” (2010), and then I simply took his works for granted around the late 2010s while he kept giving us one or two films per a year.

In the meantime, Hong gradually entered unexplored territories around the point when he made “On the Beach at Night Alone” (2017), and then there came a series of interesting works such as “Hotel by the River” (2018), “The Woman Who Ran” (2020), and “In Front of Your Face” (2021). After making so many films about your average petty South Korean heroes struggling with their relationships with women, he finally left his usual territory and then started to focus more on female characters, and that is a curiously welcoming change in my inconsequential opinion.

In case of “The Novelist’s Film”, which incidentally garnered Hong the fourth Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize when it was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, it is another typical work from Hong, but it shows us its mind and heart more directly compared to his previous works. As following its heroine’s several accidental encounters, the movie provides some forthright moments reflecting Hong’s filmmaking philosophy as well as a bit of his private life, and they are handled with enough wit and insight even while casually presented in plain sight.

Lee Hye-youn, who previously collaborated with Hong as the lead actress of “In Front of Your Face”, plays Joon-hee, a middle-aged female Seoul novelist who happens to come to Hanam (It is one of those satellite cities surrounding Seoul, by the way) on one day. During the opening scene, we see Joon-hee coming into a small local bookstore, but it turns out that something serious is happening between the owner, who happens to be her old friend, and her young female employee, so Joon-hee, whose entrance is not luckily noticed by either of them yet, decides to wait for her friend outside for a while instead.

While Joon-hee is waiting in front of the bookstore, she is soon greeted by that young female employee, who, to our little amusement, behaves as if nothing serious had happened between her and her employer. Her friend also comes out not long after that, but, to our small bafflement, she does not say anything about what really happened between her and her employee, and Joon-hee does not ask about that at all as talking with her friend more about how long it has been since they met each other for the last time.

When Joon-hee subsequently goes to a local observatory tower alone, she happens to encounter a middle-aged filmmaker and his wife, who are incidentally her close acquaintances. After having a conversation among them for a while, they eventually come to take some walk outside, and that is how they come across Gil-soo (Kim Min-hee), a well-known movie actress who has been rather dormant during recent years.

As the camera patiently looks at these four main characters, the movie gradually develops a humorous situation among them. When the filmmaker makes a rather rude comment on the current status of Gil-soo’s acting career, Joon-hee promptly and harshly criticizes that, and we are more amused as how the mood becomes quite awkward among everyone at the spot, while also coming to reflect a bit on how Kim Min-hee’s career has been jeopardized to some degree by her ongoing real-life extramarital affair with Hong.

Anyway, Joon-hee and Gil-soo come to have more time together as the filmmaker and his wife eventually leave the scene, and then they meet Gil-soo’s nephew-in-law, who is incidentally a film school student. As they talk more with each other, Joon-hee comes to have an idea on starting her own little movie project, and both Gil-soo and her nephew-in-law are quite interested in collaborating with her.

Because of the very title of the movie, we already know we will eventually see Joon-hee’s little cinematic creation in the end, but the movie still has some delight and surprise for us. In case of one certain sequence later in the story, we are initially tickled by how our heroine’s journey makes a sort of full circle in the end, and then there comes a long conversation coupled with lots of Korean rice wine instead of soju (If you are familiar with Hong’s works, you will know what I mean). The last chapter of the film, which virtually functions as its epilogue, is unfolded at a certain real movie theater, and you will be quite amused if you happen to watch the film there.

Like many of Hong’s films, the movie depends a lot on the spontaneous interactions among his small cast members, and they are constantly engaging in their effortless interactions on the screen. While Lee Hye-young diligently holds the center, Kim Min-hee, who also participated in the production of the film, Seo-yeong Hwa, Kwon Hae-hyo, and Ki Joo-bong dutifully fill their respective spots around Lee, and Ki is simply delightful to watch during his brief appearance as your typical middle-aged South Korean male poet.

In conclusion, “The Novelist’s Film” is another amusing work from Hong, and I am impressed again by how consistent and productive he has been while modestly changing his direction here and there during last two decades. I am still regarding his works with some reservation in contrast many other local critics who will certainly choose this film as the best South Korean film of 2022, but it is surely one of more interesting South Korean films of this year, and I am glad to see that he keeps going as usual.

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