Winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival, Hong Sang-hoo’s The Novelist’s Film makes its way into Irish cinemas as part of this year’s East Asia Film Festival (EAFFI) at the Irish Film Institute (IFI). A modern classic dressed in black and white, this is a considered and deeply introspective ‘day in the life’ story that is sure to resonate with audiences.
In a modest but loud café bookshop, we are introduced to a screaming match. A middle age bookshop owner is dishing out an impassioned and cruel dressing down of what appears to be a younger employee. This tension, almost painful to observe, is quickly broken up by the swift arrival of our novelist Jun-hee (Lee Hye-young). As will become a common occurrence throughout the lean 92 minute running time, Jun-hee quickly commands attention from the two figures in the bookshop. The bookshop owner, who comes out to greet and share an e-cigarette with Jun-hee, appears to know the novelist. In turn, Jun-hee appears keen to catch up with the bookshop owner but comes off as slightly—if unintentionally—abrasive in her questioning. As the two catch up over a coffee, Jun-hee also takes the opportunity to learn about her old friend’s younger colleague. Moving on from this interaction, Jun-hee proceeds to traverse through the outskirts of Seoul to meet former acquaintances and explore chance encounters with new individuals. From a narrative perspective, this is as about as much story as we get. But the beauty of The Novelist’s Film is so much deeper.
With one notable exception, Jun-hee is the film’s only named character. The focus is always on our novelist’s relationship with other on screen figures rather than the figures themselves. Occurring over the course of one day, the film could arguably be split into four distinctive sections. The first involves the aforementioned bookshop interaction. The second involves Jun-hee’s awkward reacquaintance with a film director and former colleague whom she has clearly fallen out with. The third is her chance encounter with actress Gil-soo (The Handmaiden’s Kim Min-hee) and her novice filmmaker friend. The fourth segment effectively ties together all events at a booze filled luncheon. It is the third segment, however, that proves the most substantive of Jun-hee’s exploits. Within this section, Jun-hee persuades actress Gil-soo to participate in a short film which the novelist appears impassioned to make.
An engine that drives this otherwise tame story is Jun-hee’s complex and intriguing demeanour. She appears to elicit a sense of both respect and anxiety from the people she crosses path with. Everyone who comes across her seems to be honoured to be in her presence, but at the same time desperate to end their interactions with her. This is linked to the unrelenting honesty that Jun-hee appears to be keen to transmit in each of her encounters. When meeting her bookshop friend in the film’s opening minutes, she informs her friend that she has ‘gained a lot of weight.’ When reflecting with her former associate, she assures the director that it’s ok for him to admit that he passed on the opportunity of adapting her book into a film for personal reasons to do with fame and money. Importantly, however, Jun-hee never appears to drop truth bombs out of pure callousness. She does appear to be holding onto bitterness, but at the same time doesn’t appear to hold this against anyone personally. Much of her honest commentary is followed up by positive observations and praise for the people she meets. This is particularly true when she encounters creative professionals who she has past and present associations with. When probed about why she no longer writes, she simply smiles and shakes her head while admitting that it’s because she ‘maybe can’t write’ anything of value anymore. Jun-hee’s gripe seems not to be with people, but with a creative industry that values superficial communication over genuine human connection. Something that many people will pick up on and relate to.
A more warming aspect is that Jun-hee appears particularly keen not to project her past regrets onto those who she sees as younger incarnations of herself. This is seen in opening scenes where she presses the young bookshop employee to teach her the sign language that she has learnt in her college studies. Later on, we also get a wonderfully refreshing and tension breaking moment where Jun-hee dresses down a male film director for telling a young actress that she is ‘wasting her talent’ by no longer chasing acting gigs in major films. Jun-hee seems to take things personally but almost in a vicarious and protective manner by validating independent choices that the younger women around her, in her view, are destined to take.
It is an improbable task for The Novelist’s Film to squeeze so much depth into what appears to be a very tame set of events. But Hong Sang-hoo uses every inch of the script with impressive and economic precision. The use of black and white undeniably takes away from the sense of place. But this, perhaps, is the key point that the director is trying to make. The true beauty of the story is in what you hear. What gets said. And what doesn’t need to be said. For the visuals that we do get, the director stays true to his form. Shots are long and continuous, the views are industrial, and we have no shortage of scenes involving makgeolli (milky rice wine). In fact, this gorgeous journey of mundane chance encounters is best enjoyed with a bottle of soju to sip away at.(4 / 5)
Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist Film will be playing as part of the East Asia Film Festival Ireland (EAFFI) at the Irish Film Institute (IFI) on Sunday 2nd April at 8.10pm