Once again in a meta mood, Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film (소설가의 영화, Soseolgaui Yeonghwa) seems to be peopled by those who’ve already given up. The heroine’s friend has given up her writing career to run a small-town bookshop while she herself is struggling with writer’s block, her friend’s assistant has given up acting to learn sign language, and a movie star she later meets has apparently retired because she doesn’t feel the desire to act anymore. In similar fashion a director declares that some have perceived a shift in his career that leads him to concede that he just doesn’t feel the sense of “compulsion” that used to drive him and his work may have become freer and more authentic as a result.
As usual, Hong may partly be taking about himself, about his relationship to filmmaking and to his muse Kim Min-hee who is herself given a meta moment when berated by the director, Park (Kwon Hae-hyo), who tells her that her decision to retire is a “waste” of her talent only to be shouted at by blocked novelist Junhee (Lee Hye-young) who is hoping to make a film in order to rejuvenate her creative mojo. Junhee tells Park in no uncertain terms that Kilsoo is not a child and if this is the choice she’s made he ought to respect it, circling back to the offensiveness of the word “waste” and its various implications. The situation is so awkward that it leads Park’s wife to leave it all together, but it’s true enough that after this outburst Junhee seems to find a more comfortable relationship with Kilsoo than with any of her old acquaintances as they bond in mutual admiration and shared creative endeavour.
It’s with a sense of tension that the film opens, Junhee venturing into the bookshop run by an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) only overhear a heated argument between her friend and a younger assistant, Hyunwoo. As so often with Hong the nature of the relationship is unclear, the argument intimate in quality not really the kind one has with an employee or casual acquaintance and so awkward that Junhee decides to wait outside until it’s over. In any case, Junhee’s manner even with the friend she’s deliberately tracked down and come to see is somewhat accusatory and passive aggressive as if hurt by her friend’s decision to abruptly drop out of contact apparently having given up writing and intending to cut herself off from her city life in its entirety.
Her encounter with the director is similar in that she seems clearly annoyed with him, firstly pretending not to recognise his wife then accusing of them of deliberately hiding from her at a popular tourist attraction. Picking up on the vibes, he asks her if she’s still upset with him over a project to adapt one of her novels that fell through. She says she isn’t but is obviously annoyed about something while his wife elaborates on his creative process and the ways she thinks he and it have changed. Then again the wife is also a little strange, introducing herself to Kilsoo, whom they’ve randomly bumped into in a park, as someone who lives with director Park rather than as his wife answering Kilsoo’s question of how long she’s lived with him with a very matter of fact 30 years. Junhee is similarly vague about the extent of her relationship with an ageing poet and former drinking buddy (Gi Ju-bong) with whom she had herself lost touch or perhaps partially ghosted when his interest turned romantic. We hear brief snippets about Kilsoo’s personal life, an allusion to scandal and drinking problem but never see her offscreen husband, only his filmmaker nephew (Ha Seong-guk).
Yet the the serendipitous connection between Kilsoo and Junhee allows each of them to reignite their creative spark while generating an unexpected friendship. The film novelist envisions is scripted but intended to capture something of Kilsoo as she is while ostensibly playing a character, exposing the reality of the vague relationships by cutting through artifice to the truth. In another series of meta comments, the poet reminds her she needs a hook to draw the audience in but she simply tells him she’ll figure that bit out later because the story is in its way irrelevant. “He writes what he lives” she later says of him, a little dismissively. In any case, the film she makes takes on another meta quality, Hong himself perhaps behind a camera as Kim Min-hee and another woman gather flowers eventually ending with a mutual declaration of love and a sudden burst of colour in what has been a static and monochrome affair which hints at the sense of freedom and comfort Hong like the director may have found in new artistic connection.
The Novelist’s Film screens at Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 4/7 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
US release trailer (English subtitles)