Hong Sang-soo’s wry film about a novelist who decides to make a short movie is a clever illustration of the Korean filmmaker’s own narrative methods.
I’ve had occasion before to praise the work of Korean writer and director Hong San-soo. He’s unusual in that he’s artistically modest (always doing small scale films about ordinary life) yet incredibly prolific (31 features in the last 27 years, including 15 in the last 10, and a few shorter films). Rather than trying to get financed by the big companies, he proposes an idea for a film to friends in the movie industry who can help fun modestly budgeted films. Over the years, he’s stopped writing screenplays, and instead works from little scraps of story and dialogue that then expand as he shoots, with the help of some improvisation from his actors. One of his recent films from last year (amazingly, he’s released three since then) is called The Novelist’s Film, and it’s arguably his most self-referential, in that it cleverly hints at his own creative process through its minimalist story.
Lee Hye-yeong plays Junhee, a moderately successful novelist who travels outside of Seoul to visit, unannounced, an old friend that runs a bookstore. Her friend is surprised and happy to see her, but at the same time we can sense some underlying tension. Junhee sought her fortune in the big city while her friend let go of her writing ambitions to sell books and stay within the comfort of a smaller circle. The author tends to be rather blunt; at one point she comments that her friend has gained weight since she last saw her. Later her friend says that she hasn’t read Junhee’s latest novel because now she only chooses books that she wants to read rather than those she’s supposed to read. This seems funny in recollection, but in the moment it plays as plain and matter-of-fact, like everything else in the movie.
Hong has made a film composed almost entirely of small talk, and in high contrast black & white to make things seem as mundane as possible. At all times he refrains from what we might think of as “drama,” and for some viewers this might take some getting used to.
Junhee later runs into a movie director she has known, and they gather with several friends at a restaurant where the director gets a little drunk. Everyone keeps telling Junhee that she’s “charismatic,” and to tell the truth, she is. Korean audiences will be familiar with the lead, Lee Hye-yeong, as a long-time popular actress and singer, which I suppose reinforces the impression of charisma.
Junhee, it turns out, is disillusioned with her writing and feels blocked. They happen to run into a well-know young actress, who is a fan of the author’s novels. Junhee, who has never directed a film, suddenly gets the idea of making a short film using this actress. The actress eventually agrees, and when we finally get to see this film at the end of the picture, it’s quietly revelatory, slyly illustrating Hong’s own ideas about film and narrative through this novelist’s manner and personality reflected in her film style. The Novelist’s Film is remarkable both as a kind of poem of everyday behavior and a peek into the quirky sensibility of a true artist.
On a totally different note, you should know that Jonathan Demme’s concert film about The Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense, is being released in theaters for its 40th anniversary. It’s an amazing performance in which almost all the songs, in my opinion, sound better than the versions from their studio albums. Demme perfectly fused his visual skill with the flamboyant style of The Talking Heads in this film. Be sure to catch Stop Making Sense on the big screen if you can.