The Novelist’s Film | BERLINALE 2022

Credit: Jeonwonsa Film Co.

Tom Atkinson

Hong Sang-soo loves nothing better than putting distinct forms in unknown spaces and seeing what frictions they create. In the case of The Novelist’s Film, the instigator of this friction is a writer, Jun-hee, played by potential new Hong regular Lee Hye-young, who also appeared in In Front of Your Face (2021). Despite being in an artistic crisis herself, having written very little in the years previous, Jun-hee exerts a force on the drama’s other players that, as with Hong’s other films, sends each of them in unexpected directions. She encourages a ritualistic sign-language recitation with an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) and said friend’s bookshop assistant (Park Mi-so); lashes out at a film director (Kwon Hae-hyo) who once promised to adapt her book and never followed through; and uses a chance encounter with famous actress Kil-soo (Kim Min-hee) and her nephew (Ha Seong-guk) as a starting point for the three of them to collaborate on a short film together.

Despite being another notch in Hong’s ongoing project of detail-driven, small-scale works, and featuring many of his favourite shot setups – medium shots in long takes that will only occasionally zoom to isolate one character from others in the scene – this is perhaps Hong’s most hermetically artificial work. The sharp black-and-white look of the film often washes out windows in each scene more noticeably than in any of Hong’s previous films, making interiors look like strange spaceship control rooms – or film sets with bad lighting designers. Meanwhile, the film features a rare POV shot when introducing Kim Min-hee into the narrative, singling her out under the dramatically rendered gaze of the director.

No stranger to metatextuality, Hong nevertheless has tended to find self-reflexivity in knotty structures, such as narratively modular diptych Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), or in the very foundation of his concepts, most notably the thinly-veiled autofiction of his greatest work, On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). In The Novelist’s Film, the artificiality of his filmmaking is creeping, ambiguous. One isn’t even entirely sure that it’s there at first, or whether the blown-out lighting and unexpected shot choices are naturally occurring production restraints and on-the-fly experimental notes in an otherwise straightforward drama for Hong.

But then the short film finally appears, showing Kil-soo (or is it Kim Min-hee herself?) wandering around a woodland with an elderly woman, brandishing a bouquet of flowers, and play-acting a wedding aisle walk. Suddenly, the picture turns to colour. Despite looking so unassuming on Hong’s consumer-grade digital cameras, the overall effect of the film’s harsh monochrome palette elsewhere is to make this sequence akin to seeing colour for the first time. And at the centre of this burst of colour? Kim Min-hee herself, forever Hong’s romantic and artistic muse.

Jun-hee thus becomes more than just a stand-in for the director’s artistic pretences, and even then she is particularly loose in that regard – she is, after all, experiencing writers’ block, something I doubt the prolific Hong is particularly worried about right now. No, her role here is more orbital, a walking manifestation of Hong’s methods: goad people into action, see what new modulations come from it, and you have a film. A post-credits stinger that erases all trace of Jun-hee appears to drive home this point, consciously sending the film straight into the realm of speculation and once-and-for-all blurring the line between Kil-soo and Kim Min-hee. It’s a somewhat circular way of getting there, but this might be his most romantic film, a love letter where he tries to answer the question of what inspires him to create. And in the end, he can only muster this missive: I do it because of her.