A freshly printed text, an ageing novelist, and a sudden jolt of violence at a local bookstore. Hong Sang-soo’s latest venture commences with a verbal fight; a sudden unwelcoming confrontation heard in the background between two bickering characters. The conflict? Unknown to the viewer, as we view our stationary protagonist — listening and adamantly absorbing each word through distant voice-over. 

“You won’t speak now?” 

The two women begin to emerge from the emotional decay. They are known to the Novelist; now gently intervening into the lives of the two characters. The owner of the shop, an old friend whom the Novelist had traveled far to finally reconcile with after so many distant years, begins an artificial dialogue. The other woman, a young thirty-something enamoured by sign-language, situates herself in the other’s shadow. 

Violence is rarely present in the aptly titled The Novelist’s Film; a delicately crafted meta-text told in typical Hong Sang-soo fashion. Yet there’s a lingering melancholy in every scene, where the film highlights the Novelist’s own personal contempt against her voice & identity in minuscule social circles. Very little can be actually stated about the overarching narrative of The Novelist’s Film. Presented in realist form, Sang-soo’s mise-en-scène extends the limits of the static long-take with perfectly performed punctuation. The blocking and dialogue readings from each of his performers exude humanist naturalism; each of the actors in perfect synchronicity and command of their performances. The banter, the awkward conversations, and the cringe of monotonous mundanity almost create the illusion that the viewer is no longer observing a film. So, Sang-soo breaks his command with a sudden zoom or camera tilt, reminding the viewer of the differentiation between reality and visual text. 

If anything, The Novelist’s Film is a blurry reflection of reality; self-contained in the often devastating cycles of routine. In a film where the majority of the character’s face conflicts involving a scrutinising inability to communicate; the result of these moments of fragmented humanity force the characters to perform a role assigned to themselves. The execution of these sequences are occasionally maudlin; bordering on needless repetition and a questionably extended finale. Though, there’s always an invigorating performance and written talent dedicated towards these intimate conversations. Most of the time, the spoken-word rarely (and purposefully) feels genuine; until Kim Min-Hee’s ‘Kilsoo’ literally walks into the picture. Her acceptance of a presumably slow acting career exemplifies her deep content with her personal affairs. In the process, her self-love and testament to her reality holds power in the face of creative scrutiny and the subsequent bi-product of internalised self-loathing.

Still Courtesy – FINECUT

The film’s most empathetic high-note involves a congregation at a Ramen-shop, as the Novelist confesses her inability to craft written text. At the same time, a young girl witnesses their conversation from afar; widely observant at Kilsoo’s mannerisms from the confines of a literal glass barrier. It’s the perfect visual emblem of the generational divide that will eventually succumb to all artists of all ages; a contempt that can only be cured with the realisation of the self. With love comes practice. No matter how many people the Novelist interacts with, she’ll never truly know how a person may react to any of her films or published texts. There’s a reason why Hong Sang-soo never presents the Novelist’s fictional film in the structural epilogue. There’s a reason why the film opens with a sudden moment of violence. No matter how hard the Novelist tries, there will always be some sort of disturbance which she’ll never understand nor experience first-hand. After decades of friendship, after countless conversations which merely re-iterate their insistence on their own well-being; she’ll never experience nor understand the interior lives of others. So, she decides to create, in order to fulfil her desires. In the process, with the help of an amateur film student and Kilsoo’s observant aid, she utilises a new medium as an unorthodox communication device. The inception and release of a film is a precious moment, where the author departs from their internalised sins for a moment of self-reflexive pleasure. The pleasure entices them to repeat the cycle of creation, until they find the process tedious in their lives. Life is short, unsatisfying, and painful. Any personal facilitation to find joy in an over-exposed monochromatic world can serve as a form of therapy. 

At the end of The Novelist’s Film, we witness a brief out-of-context snippet recorded by Sang-soo. The clip is a scene involving his muse Kim Min-Hee; out of character. Gracefully, she caresses a group of flowers, tenderly posing for the filmmaker. Colour now exists in this world. The music swells. This is Sang-soo’s fantasia. Albeit random, the fragment is necessary; an additional meta-text which amplifies Sang-soo’s personal ruminations on the power of art and the exasperation in which the command of communication holds. When we are provided with a new perspective, new vision, and a literal new lens on life and creation; we can finally find solace in the power of an intimate conversation. 

Her name is Junhee.

She’s a novelist, empath, and aspiring cineaste.

This is her film.

Still Courtesy – FINECUT
The Novelist’s Film premiered in competition at this year’s 72nd Berlinale.

By David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.