Having long been mired in a writer’s block that she fears might be terminal, celebrated novelist Junhee decides the solution is to try another medium altogether, and sets out make a film. She has an actor, and a cinematographer, but no clear idea of what her film should be about — and that’s okay, she decides, since it will all emerge in time. “Isn’t it too offhand?” a poet friend challenges her. “Don’t you need something to pull people in?” Thus, and not for the first time, does South Korea’s one-man film factory Hong Sangsoo send up his own oeuvre in his 28th feature “The Novelist’s Film,” another gently circuitous, conversation-driven charmer sharing Junhee’s view that “the story is not that important” — but containing more incident and emotion than initially meet the eye.
All Hong films are tangrams to an extent, arriving at slightly different forms from the same foundational pieces. “The Novelist’s Film” is no exception, repurposing multiple narrative, thematic and stylistic elements from its predecessors, but culminating in a mood of quizzical artistic self-interrogation that still feels spry and distinct — with at least a trick or two added to the director’s rumpled, well-worn bag. (Viewers are advised to stay through the closing credits, for one thing.) Hong’s third consecutive Competition entry at the Berlinale (which is not to say the third consecutive feature from this most tirelessly prolific of artists) is unlikely to move the needle at all on his standing and following, but his most loyal admirers and distributors will be delighted once more.
Superficially, at least, the previous Hong work onto which “The Novelist’s Film” can most obviously be mapped is last year’s superb Cannes entry “In Front of Your Face.” Both are portraits of a middle-aged female artist of some renown, away from home, shuffling between a series of old and new acquaintances, who gradually tease out from her some measure of self-effacing truth.
The most welcome common factor between the two, however, is returning actor Lee Hyeyoung, a revelation to many following a long career stretch in Korean TV. As Junhee, she is again a fount of complicated, initially internalized but eventually betrayed feeling, emerging first in sharp, subtle gestures and later in unbottled torrents of rage and regret. One hopes she is now, like co-star and production manager Kim Minhee, a permanent member of the Hong company. (It’s not a large one: As in much of his recent work, the writer-director also assumes sole producing, editing, lensing and scoring credit.)
The first in the film’s leisurely carousel of encounters sets the tone, as Junhee arrives in an unfamiliar commuter town some way outside Seoul, and turns up unannounced at the bookstore café run by her estranged friend Sewon (Seo Younghwa). Taken off-guard, Sewon sits down with her for coffee, and a pained, unspoken backstory shimmers through like a watermark in their halting conversation.
The women haven’t seen each other in some years, during which time Sewon moved away from Seoul without telling Junhee — a former writer herself, she has decided to give it up, settling on a life of reading books instead. “Now, I only read what I really like,” she says, and we can’t help wondering if Junhee’s novels fall into that category. We never quite learn the source of the disconnect between the two women. Even Junhee, having specifically sought out Sewon, seems to lose interest in their reunion, her attention first drifting to Sewon’s young, shy, sign language-speaking assistant (Park Miso) before she sets off sightseeing in town.
At a gaudy local lookout tower, she runs into Hyojin (Kwon Haehyo), a well-regarded filmmaker she knows, though their friendly small talk takes on a barbed edge: It seems Hyojin once pursued an adaptation of one of Junhee’s novels, though the project never came to pass. (“I barely manage to get my own films made,” he says apologetically: He could learn a thing a two from Hong.) In a park, they encounter semi-famous actress Kilsoo (Kim Minhee, luminous as ever), and the two women swiftly bond, shaking off the sheepish Hyojin, and plan Junhee’s vaguely imagined filmmaking debut over ramen.
Later events in the day bring things full circle, as acquaintances unexpectedly overlap and the addition of alcohol — as in many a Hong joint — warms and blurs proceedings. Taking a break from soju, the director’s standard tipple, the loosener of tongues and spirits this time is milky, fermented makkgeoli: Every minor variation in this filmography counts for something. But booze isn’t quite enough to unlock what the guarded, elusive Junhee is seeking in her life and art, while our eventual glimpse of her film is similarly opaque. It does, however, feature a shock of saturated color that breaks from the film’s otherwise stark, grainy, high-contrast monochrome, and perhaps that literal change of lens is the most significant hint we get.
Not that there needs to be any clear answer. Junhee’s polite veneer is most abruptly dropped when Hyojin — despite having himself observed that artists need to “fix life first” rather than burying themselves in work — notes that Kilsoo’s recent break from acting is “such a waste.” “‘Waste’ implies she’s doing something wrong,” Junhee hotly interrupts. “Do you love her life more than she does?” Ultimately, “The Novelist’s Film” defends the idea of drift and hiatus, of time spent idling to hear your own thoughts, in their own sweet time. If that’s not a philosophy to which Hong Sangsoo — doubtless already beavering away at feature #29 — personally subscribes, he’s at least receptive to the idea.