There are signposts in the critical appreciation of South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-Soo. In reading about his films, you are likely to stumble over his encounter with Paul Cézanne, into a much-thumbed copy of Notes sur le cinématographe, and through his dizzying prolificacy; not to mention a proclivity towards scenes of food and the heroic consumption of drink, his affair with Kim Min-hee, and finally a radical reduction of means. With enough exposure to Hong’s biography, it is easy to see him in the films he makes. But to leave it at that is to ignore the challenges his films articulate. The Novelist’s Film is a stunning re-articulation of Hong’s core concerns.
Junhee (Lee Hye-yeong) is visiting an old acquaintance (played by Seo Young-hwa) who now owns a bookshop. The bookseller believed that nobody knew to where she escaped. Junhee is evasive about how she tracked down her old friend. She asks whether the bookseller has stopped writing. Almost everyone Junhee interacts with recognises her as a famous novelist. In each of her encounters, her interlocutor has read her latest book.
Hong’s films are populated by artists. It is the milieu from which he works, again lending his work an easy biographical edge. Auteur theory carries with it an unfortunate cult of personality. This is exacerbated by an increasingly online film culture; one which, moreover, confuses trivia and the saturation of spectacle with a thinking through of the cinematic object. Since 2005, Hong has been producing films through his own Jeonwonsa Film Co. The first film under that banner was A Tale of Cinema, completed as the labour of a conventional crew. Hong Sang-Soo is credited in The Novelist’s Film for the production, the screenplay, the direction, the cinematography, the editing, and the music.
Junhee chances upon Hyojin (Hae-hyo Kwon), a film director with whom she briefly collaborated. She is first approached by his wife (played by Yunhee Cho). Hyojin makes excuses, but it is clear from the start that he was avoiding the novelist. Like everyone else, he read Junhee’s most recent novel. Crucially, she has not seen his latest film. Hyojin had wanted to shoot one of her books, but the investors said no. Junhee snipes at him, commenting on his commercial success and his apparent material comfort. Tension snaps when the trio run into Kilsoo (Kim Min-hee), a semi-retired actor. Hyojin decries her wasted talent. Waste, the novelist contends, implies Kilsoo is doing something wrong. The actor no longer wants to act. To deplore her decision is to treat her like a child. A waste of talent; a waste of breath. The director and his wife exit the picture.
It is Junhee’s turn to pay compliments. She is familiar with Kilsoo and her husband, who is a potter. They gave an interview to a magazine which the novelist read and which garnered her respect. Kilsoo’s nephew, Gyeongwoo (Seong-guk Ha), arrives into the picture. He is a film student in Seoul. Another artist. The three agree to collaborate on a short film, fulfilling a long-frustrated ambition for the novelist. The people in Hong’s films have gotten older as he himself has aged. They are his contemporaries. Junhee admits to feeling her writing has become exaggerated. She may not have another novel in her, not because she is unable to write (which she does every day), but because her work has become so familiar that to embody it is to wear a finished style.
Having a literary figure speak about filmmaking allows Hong to articulate cinematic ideas at a healthy remove. Whether what Junhee says is the direct expression of Hong’s process is secondary to the exquisite beauty of the two sequences most directly related to the novelist’s film. Junhee pursues feeling: “Most important is an actor I can freely look at, observe and feel with my heart, and she’s put in her most comfortable state. Then the camera will capture whatever emerges from her at that time.” I could not help but reflect on Alexandre Astruc, for whom cinema needed to get away from the valorisation of the image and the narrative in favour of a means of articulation “just as flexible and subtle as written language.” To equate the work of a novelist with caméra-stylo is certainly a semantic convenience. However, given the roles Hong takes on his film, one can say that he exerts a control over his work unequalled outside of the experimental cinema. I know of few, if any, other narrative filmmakers who so thoroughly sign their features.
Following an ellipsis, Kilsoo will attend a screening of the completed film. She sits alone in the cinema (another tick on the checklist). As the lights darken on the actor, Hong cuts to Junhee and Gyeongwoo milling about with the venue’s programmer. He then cuts to handheld footage of Kim Min-hee holding a bouquet of flowers in the park which acts as the setting for much of The Novelist’s Film. She looks directly into the camera, humming Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus.” A man’s voice, somewhat muffled, is heard behind the camera. She speaks to him. “I love you,” he says. She affirms her love for him. The sequence is bracingly intimate. It has the same digital, black and white texture as the rest of the film, except for a brief shot in colour of Kim tying the stems of the flowers. Both the camera operator and Kilsoo’s husband remain unseen in the shards of reality they inhabit. He is present through his absence. It is unclear whether these images are from the film a solitary Kilsoo watches in the cinema. These images only make sense if the man behind the camera is someone who puts Kim in her most comfortable state. Only then can his camera capture what emerges.
After the credits roll, Kilsoo emerges from the screening room. She is pensive, or perhaps shaken. The Novelist’s Film is one of repetition and coincidence. Chance meetings with friends, old and new. Two of these are complimentary of Junhee’s “great charisma,” a quality the novelist did not know she possessed. It is about people living (to pick a title prominently displayed in the bookshop) with no time to spare. To approach life as such is to demand an openness to possibility – that is, to be alive to the specificity and possibility of the present moment. Hong Sang-soo limits himself to specific times and specific places. His actors comment on the weather. It is like spring, not cold at all. Despite this, they wear coats and complain off-hand that they are too warm. We know this feeling. No move is made to stitch away reality from the studiously composed simplicity of Hong’s mise-en-scène.
The Novelist’s Film will screen at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute (IFI) Sunday, April 1st as part of the East Asia Film Festival Ireland (www.eaffi.ie).