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‘The Novelist’s Film,’ Review: An Artistic Crisis Drama From a Hugely Prolific Director

This Friday, “The Novelist’s Film”, by the South Korean director Hong Sangso, opens at the Film at Lincoln Center, just weeks after its screening at the New York Film Festival. This is his third film to be released here this year, and one of two presented at the festival. (The other, “To go upscheduled for release in 2023.) He is the most prolific major director of recent years, with fifteen feature films since 2013. Yet “Le Film du romancier” is a story of artistic creation built on the fallow ground of crisis and idleness, a drama of what it takes, personally and artistically, to revive oneself in doubt and despair.

It is a particular form of bittersweet confession, and one that is based on the underlying circumstances of its genesis. One of the secrets of the French New Wave, usually (and wrongly) linked to the sole cult of the director, is the emphasis on production. From the start, its young luminaries recognized that the art of cinema involves something more fundamental than creative control, namely control of the time and money, administrative and technical processes of filmmaking. They discovered that by rethinking and customizing the “how” of the film, the “what” of it – the art – would follow. That’s what Hong did, with quiet vengeance. It’s all the more remarkable that he did it as part of a mid-career change, in 2008, when he was approaching his 50s. Until then he had worked within the local film industry and, starting relatively late as a director (in his mid-thirties), made eight films in twelve years. Starting with “As if you knew everything“, from 2009, Hong created his own system, and that’s what made him so prolific: he raises small sums (this film would have cost a hundred thousand dollars) and works quickly with small groups of characters and small crews. (For “The Novelist’s Film,” Hong has a three-person crew: himself, as producer, director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor, and even creator of his music; Kim Min- hee, a film actress and partner, as production manager; and Seo Ji-hoon, who recorded the sound.) Hong also developed a style—or rather, extending, exaggerating, and refining the style of his films. precedents – which suits both his material situation and offers his cinematographic world an even more advantageous and targeted mode of expression.

“The novelist’s film” is, to begin with, the story of its casting. The novelist in question, Kim Jun-hee, is played by Lee Hye-young, a famous actress of the 1980s and 1990s who had acted in very few films in that century before joining Hong for “In front of your face(2021). Her presence and performance in this film gave her and her cinematic world a shock. She and Hong are of the same generation (born in 1962 and 1960, respectively), and, along with her quietly commanding acting presence, her public persona offered Hong ready-made substance for great drama: her character. in “In Front of Your Face”. ” made several sorts of returns, personal and professional, after long absences, and the film, although quite in one piece with his other later efforts, reached tragic heights that are unusual in his films (or those of n ‘anyone). In “The Novelist’s Film”, the symbolic power of Lee’s character also plays a crucial role in the drama.

Novelist-turned-filmmaker Jun-hee plans to model a movie about the actors she brings together. “The novelist’s film” is therefore a story of cinema, but it is above all a story of encounters: personal and artistic relationships between will and chance, between activity and passivity. Jun-hee travels to a town outside of Seoul to visit a longtime unknown friend (Seo Young-hwa), a writer (whose name is never heard) who now owns a small bookstore and a café which is also a local artistic meeting place. Jun-hee is an acclaimed writer; the bookseller’s young assistant (Park Mi-so) recognizes her immediately. The bookstore owner stopped writing a long time ago and left town without saying a word to his friends. she practically hides and is dismayed that her whereabouts have leaked into literary circles. We quickly understand why Jun-hee made the trip: she herself, despite a long and famous career, fell fallow, lost her motivation to write, and doubts even if she will write again. She indeed went to see what the post-writing life of a former writer looks like.

Short answer: it doesn’t look good. The first thing Jun-hee finds at the bookstore is the pettiness, backbiting, strife of running a small business. But she also discovers, in the course of a single day in the provincial town, a stronger, deeper, more powerful current, which flows beneath the surface of the artists’ frozen lives. The saleswoman is a thirty-three-year-old former theater student who has stopped acting. In a park, Jun-hee has a chance encounter with a filmmaker she knows, Park Hyo-jin (Kwon Hae-hyo), who she considers a commercial betrayal. She also meets a famous actress, Kil-soo (Kim Min-hee), who has stopped acting (they recognize each other) and is walking with her nephew Gyeong-woo (Ha Seong-guk), a film student. This encounter sparks an instant friendship between Jun-hee and Kil-soo, which inspires the novelist to announce her longtime desire to make a film, for which she hopes to recruit Kil-soo and her husband, a potter, for a brief shoot. , with technical support from Gyeong-woo. This immediate connection leads to another chance encounter, with an older poet (Ki Joo-bong) and former “drinking buddy” whose explosive arrogance swells to fill his artistic self-image.

In short, the artistic world that Jun-hee discovers, in this small town away from the metropolis, is that of personal problems and needs that take the place of art. She crosses this small world like a star, although involuntary, whose public image intensifies and complicates her relationships, the new ones as well as the renewed ones. She is unleashed with majestic fury against the commercial filmmaker, who dares to blame Kil-soo for “wasting” his talent. She finds herself praised for her “charisma” by many of the people she meets, and, even if she dismisses the compliment, she also discovers very quickly what it means: it is the very essence of art but translates in terms of everyday life, the practical power that attracts others to help it transform its conceptions into realities.

She has an idea for making a film – outlining a simple, everyday story but modeling it closely on the personalities of her actors, who must be people with whom she feels an affinity. Spoiler alert: she’s directing the film, and it’s here that Hong presents the entirety of “The Novelist’s Movie” in the ironic light of her own artistic endeavors. It shows footage from Jun-hee’s film, and it’s graceful, lyrical, sensitive; his . . . OKAY? But that doesn’t suggest the originality of Jun-hee’s cinematic concept. Along with the intensity of the relationships – and the hard work – that went into it, it’s disappointing.

The heart of Hong’s film, however, is not Jun-hee’s film but his filming of these relationships, in a manner exemplary of his later style. It’s rooted in a handful of extended conversational scenes, mostly with a static frame (sometimes punctuated by a few zooms and pans), in which the characters unleash torrents of feelings and depths of experience with bracing, flippant pugnacity. The seemingly simple realism of Hong’s work is a distilled and rarefied mannerism, built around quietly exquisite and incisive visual compositions that highlight luminous performances of simultaneous precision and freedom. Moreover, Hong’s emphasis on the extraordinary emotions of ordinary encounters and discussions yields and conceals his sly and highly constructed sense of form – he constructs his seemingly simple stories around leaps, gaps, leaps, but also dreams and fantasies, alternate narratives and rearrangements of time. . “The Novelist’s Film” is purely chronological and naturalistic, but that nonetheless makes it a complex or sophisticated reflection on the nature of films, both intellectual and practical. As a filmmaker, Hong is a walking infrastructure, a man of method whose experience crystallizes naturally in cinematic form; without such an infrastructure, Jun-hee, despite all the revitalizing power of his new adventure, is on a cinematic limb, a cinematic void. The novelist’s film is above all the stuff of the novelist’s next novel – and of the “Novelist’s Film”. ♦