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‘The Novelist’s Film’ Review: Hong Sang-soo Gets More Personal than Ever in Tipsy Ode to Artistic Freedom

Hong Sang-soo's latest switches soju for makgeolli in a sweet and self-revealing sketch about a frustrated artist trying to free their mind.

The Novelist's Film

“The Novelist’s Film”

It feels odd to single out a Hong Sang-soo movie as being especially “personal” — it’s not as if any of the prolific Korean auteur’s playful, recursive, and relentlessly idiosyncratic micro-budget work has been withholding or made for hire — but “The Novelist’s Film” hits a bit different than many of Hong’s recent ditties. Why is that?

Despite being a little breezier than “Grass,” more accessible than “Introduction,” and more fluid than “Hotel by the River” (to namecheck just three of the other black-and-white features he’s made in the last four years), “The Novelist’s Film” is still just another tipsy sketch of artistic self-negation. The forcefully lackadaisical story it tells — about a frustrated author low-key ambushing an old friend — is fractured in Hong’s usual fashion, and its patient frames are populated by several of his usual faces.

Once again, chance encounters lead to long and porous conversations about the past; once again, Hong’s deceptively sober direction begins to interrogate itself when his characters get drunk. The movie’s ending is as enigmatic as any that Hong has ever devised, and the delightful post-credits stinger that follows only adds to its sweetly woozy sense of confusion (stick around to see it — the credits are only about 10 names long).

This time, however, all of Hong’s usual tricks assume a slightly different flavor. Maybe that’s because “The Novelist’s Film” is lubricated with makgeolli instead of Hong’s usual soju (a change as seismic to the Hong Sang-sooniverse as recasting Spider-Man would be to the MCU). Or maybe it’s because the movie’s successful but unsteady protagonist is an author instead of a director, which eventually allows her to make her first short film with the same depressurized freedom that Hong has been pursuing.

Whatever the reason, both “The Novelist’s Film” and the novelist’s film seem open instead of self-facing — explanatory instead of confessional. Presenting itself as a bittersweet inquiry into what audiences expect from their art, Hong’s 27th feature gradually begins to chafe against the bridle of expectations that artists have for themselves. If his work has always insisted that cinema should broaden who we are rather than calcify it, “The Novelist’s Film” is nakedly about how the medium’s function is determined by its form. Free your art, and your art will free you in return.

Of course, none of Hong’s movies would dare to be as prescriptive as I’ve made this one sound, but it seems fair to say that Jun-hee’s (Lee Hye-young) trip away from Seoul is just what the doctor ordered. A famous author on the cusp of 60 whose recent creative struggles have made her wonder if she’s lost the strength to write, Jun-hee retreats to the quiet suburbs where so many of Hong’s stories have taken place. Her agenda: drop in on an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) who abandoned writing literature for selling it, and take a temperature check on civilian life.

The bookstore owned by Jun-hee’s friend seems cozy enough, but the tension between the proprietor and her young employee immediately makes it clear that we’re not watching some kind of straightforward ode to the simple life. When Jun-hee strikes up a conversation, the negging is violently polite on both sides; Jun-hee observes that her “natural” and “carefree” friend has gained a lot of weight, while the friend admits that she hasn’t read Jun-hee’s latest novel because she’s exclusively interested in reading what she wants to read these days, as opposed to what she’s supposed to read. Diss. The pendulum would seem to be swinging away from Jun-hee, but giving up is never much of a victory in Hong’s book.

From there, Jun-hee visits a local tourist attraction, where she runs into a sheepish director (Kwon Hae-hyo) who almost adapted one of her novels before the project imploded. His attitude towards filmmaking has changed since then. He used to think his life was shit, so he devoted his energy to fixing his filmmaking; now, he feels that fixing his life is the best way to improve his filmmaking. “Maybe I’m just getting old,” he concludes, but who isn’t? “Everyone’s just trying their best,” his wife chimes in.

When the three of them literally cross paths with a famous but earthbound actress named Kil-soo (Hong’s partner Kim Min-hee, who’s also credited as the film’s production manager) a few minutes later, the director begrudges her for taking some time off and “wasting” her talents. An outraged Jun-hee is the only person who seems to hear the hypocrisy in that about-face. “Everyone wants to realize their life in their own way,” she snarls. “A waste of her talent? Just try not to waste your life.” Mega diss (Lee thrives in these spikier moments, her character overcome by the same purity of expression that’s been eluding her on the page).

It would be fair to say that there are no chance encounters in Hong’s films, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there are only chance encounters in Hong’s films, where possibility simmers beneath every new combination of people. His plots are less organized by dramatic principle than by the geometry of arranging characters just so, as if his signature zooms were searching for the angles that might reveal the secret math of his wide shots.

In this case, adding Jun-hee and Kil-soo together inspires these two wayward artists to make a medium-length film together — one absent any commercial obligations or concern for its imagined audience. The concept they come up with is similar to Hong’s own without being self-flattering, and the finished project they arrive at (with help from Kil-soo’s unseen but decidedly Hongsian potter/director/husband) appears to be more plotless and “experimental” than anything Hong has ever made for himself. I was reminded of the ending that Olivier Assayas invented for his first “Irma Vep,” which traced a similar (if more structuralist) escape route from the limits of the self.

I can’t say whether Hong has suffered any of the creative self-doubts that animate his latest heroine, but the film he’s made for her feels as revealing as the one she then makes for herself. Free your art, your art will free you in return — a nice idea, but one that the uniqueness of Hong’s career makes easier to admire than it is to internalize. It goes without saying that Hong always puts his money where his mouth is, but in “The Novelist’s Film” he also finds a way to pay it forward.

Grade: B+

The Cinema Guild will release “The Novelist’s Film” in theaters on Friday, October 28.

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