Now midway through the third decade of a career that’s become nothing if not thematically and stylistically cohesive, Hong Sangsoo is like his own obscure streaming channel — addictive to avid subscribers but bafflingly rarefied to most newcomers. The latest feature from the master of the metafictional miniature, The Novelist’s Film — which returns him to the Berlin competition after being honored for direction in 2020 for The Woman Who Ran and for screenplay the following year with Introduction — is a wispy doodle even by his own self-reflexive standards. But there’s sly humor and insights into the insecurities of the artistic process for those willing to listen closely to the seemingly inconsequential chatter.
Shot by Hong predominantly in black and white, with his characteristic mix of static shots punctuated by the occasional assault zoom, this is a slender roundelay of encounters among familiar faces from his unofficial repertory company — some planned, others spontaneous. At the center of almost all of them is the novelist of the title, Junhee (the dryly hilarious Lee Hyeyoung), who laces the painfully polite small talk with the passive-aggressive darts of someone who feels she’s owed more validation than she gets.
The Novelist’s Film
Junhee first ambushes former colleague Sewan (Seo Younghwa) at the bookshop café the latter runs on the outskirts of Seoul since giving up writing herself. Sewan artfully dodges Junhee’s questions about why she didn’t contact the novelist with feedback after reading her latest book. But she gets in a few stealth jabs by pointing out that Junhee’s most recent effort was some time back; that she now reads strictly for pleasure, not to keep up with the critical cognoscenti; and that she stocks her store with books readers might enjoy. The best Junhee can manage is that Sewan has gained weight, but it suits her. Meow.
The novelist then moves on to a nearby tower known for its view, where she meets a young woman (Cho Yunhee) whose husband, the film director Hyojin (Kwon Haehyo), may have ducked into the shadows to avoid Junhee. It emerges that he was slated to direct a screen adaptation of one of Junhee’s novels, which fell apart. The trio go for coffee before Junhee suggests a typically Hongian walk in the park, where they meet the well-known actress Kilsoo (Hong’s muse and companion Kim Minhee). Much stilted mutual admiration ensues, even though Kilsoo has been in a bit of a career funk and seems touchy when Hyojin insists it’s a crime that she’s wasting her talent.
Always anxious to shift the conversation back to herself, Junhee suggests she write a short film to star Kilsoo and they branch off to discuss the hypothetical project over ramen. Only then does Junhee begin to open up about feeling the strain and losing any sense of enjoyment in her writing. In the film’s funniest visual gag, a young girl who’s clearly a fan stops dead in her tracks outside the restaurant to stare through the window at Kilsoo, oblivious to Junhee.
When Kilsoo gets a call from a friend to drop by and help her out in a potentially awkward social situation, the actress invites Junhee along. Their destination turns out to be the bookshop, where Sewan and her young assistant (Park Miso) have been joined by the poet Mansoo (Ki Joobong), an old drinking buddy of Junhee’s that she seems less than thrilled to see. In place of the usual soju, large amounts of the fermented rice liquor makgeolli are consumed, until Kilsoo falls asleep at the table.
The deadpan edge of much of the film’s 90 minutes of prattle conceals thoughts on the insularity of creative communities, the ticking clock of an artist’s life and the importance of remaining open to finding truth even in what appear to be random connections. The playful final scenes introduce a film within the film — in color — which suggests there’s beauty to be found in simplicity. Or that novelist’s shouldn’t direct films; it’s anyone’s guess. There’s also the amusing surprise of a mid-credits scene.
As far as the minor variations of Hong’s recent rinse-and-repeat output go, The Novelist’s Film is an unapologetically slight entry, stripped back to the point where it seems to be about nothing and has nothing especially profound to say. But it’s a pleasurable exercise for an artist continually in conversation with himself about the value of his work and what his collaborators bring to it. As such, Hong’s 27th feature is arguably less an essential new chapter than a teasing footnote to everything he’s done before.