Director Hong Sang-soo has been slowly whittling his cinema down. He works at an average pace of two films a year, they are increasingly defined by repetition and, to an extent, reduction. At this point, he has a large output, one defined by similarity in which he continues to do the same thing completely differently. His style is indelible, one of the more defined cinematic grammars to the extent that his films can feel, technically, like checklists of Hongisms: static cameras where people talk; a narrative set in the aftermath of an event; a focus on female perspectives or on male inadequacy/cruelty (often all of these); a drinking scene where secrets are revealed; slow, deliberate zooms into characters at key points. The list continues; these are deceptively simple works that, through this simplicity, gain a literary complexity. Within these rules, within this form, director Hong has found room for versatile expression, where the Hongisms take the place of literary devices or literary shorthand. They are novelist’s films, perhaps.
Like with almost all of director Hong’s work, The Novelist’s Film could be a starting point but is a work enriched by familiarity. As a standalone work, it is not his most broadly appealing or indicative but it will still carry great appeal to those who can attune themselves to its specific rhythm. If you want incident or, to be honest, plot, this is not for you. If you want the incidental instead, if you want the drama to be forged purely from human interaction, for the appeal to come from observing the seemingly banal and how to glean insight from how precisely judged it is, this is for you. It is unobtrusive but self-reflexive filmmaking, another director Hong film in conversation with itself, and with his wider filmography. It is, to a large extent, one of those again. But, somehow, through its deft deployment of the known, it becomes something delicately unique, one where its distinctions contain a shocking beauty. Hong Sang-soo’s films now all seem to be flowers on the same plant, so seemingly identical but, upon inspection, full of wonderful divergence and stunning due to this.
In this film, Hong Sang-soo embarks on a quiet revolution. For those unversed in his work, it will not feel like this. You will get a different film, a wonderful film, but a different one. What most viewers will get is a tender work that could be described as a later in life coming of age story, or of burgeoning independence in the face of expectation. We follow a novelist, Junhee (Lee Hye-yeong), and a number of incidents that befall her in a small period. These incidents are chance connections with friends, or past acquaintances, each causing a degree of reflection and allowing both audience and character to reflect on her current position. Through this device we see a growth of independence, a creative forging their own way beyond expectation and being able to speak candidly and powerfully. A key moment showing this is a conversation with a filmmaker who was supposed to adapt one of her novels, but never did. He comes across poorly, especially so in an interaction with an in-fiction actress, Kilsoo (Kim Min-hee), in which he pontificates about how she is wasting her talent by being in few productions. It’s another Hongian reveal of how society enables men to enact cruelty under the guise of politeness, how they can weaponise the entitlement of patriarchy. But, this time, Junhee steps in and criticises this prosaic cruelty. This dynamic happens a few times. This seemingly unassuming creative type resists, often in minor ways, and disrupts the flow.
The wider narrative, as much as there is one, becomes Junhee embarking on making a film with Kilsoo. They find something in each other, and support each other, pushing towards their own art in their way. These moments do not flow in a traditional story structure. Each moment has the feeling of spontaneity, which links us back to director Hong’s quiet revolution. The film adopts Hongisms but each time lightly resists. It repeats a motif but pulls slyly away from it, becoming a cinema of the same but one of distinct and purposeful difference. It also pushes towards the cinematic and pulls back. Dynamics are hinted at that lay the tracks for drama or for a more overt narrative, they are sidestepped. Through this, Hong Sang-soo pursues a heart-warming anti-cinema, a piece antithetical to the traditionally cinematic. Through this device he foregrounds the spontaneous, the little moments that make up life. The film is built around a number of coincidences, as Junhee stumbles upon fixtures in here life in a nakedly contrived way, only for the film to reject contrivance. Here, a familiarity with the director pays off. Each character harkens back somewhat to a Hongian archetype and every actor has been in at least one of Hong Sang-soo’s films. In this film that appears like just one of those again, the parts of the Hongian work push in and reoccur, only for them to be lightly rejected.
It is more than this, though, it is a subtle filmic manifesto. By being about a creative, a different kind of creative, who starts to make a film, the work becomes inherently metatextual. This kind of thinly veiled autofiction that also functions as cinema on cinema is a staple of director Hong, but he does push it in a different direction. This is a film full of expectation, a motif of dialogue and a real aspect of the story structure (gleaned through these meetings). Cinema places certain expectations and thus, seemingly, can become this rigid and formulaic thing. Hong Sang-soo knows he does a different cinema, through this film he both makes a case for it and refines it. His works have often been defined by intricate structures, here it is looser, a work more open to divergence and living in the moment. This is made literal in an utterly stunning scene towards the end that involves a stylistic flourish, and sits as a delightful enigma in the wider film. It also, at the same time, illuminates the wider film.
Characters here all talk about being a certain way, being expected to be a certain way and intersections of tradition of expectation, or how past defines present and future. The Novelist’s Film is interested in the present, it is interested in the present as a progression from the past, as opposed to an echo of it. It is interested in how cinema can mirror the natural, the effortless and the beautifully banal. The word spontaneity reverberates through it, a fluid sense of cinema that can adapt to life rather than bending to genre or expectation. It is both a work of precision and one of freedom. Or, it is one where precision gives way to freedom; one where expectations do not have to be met, when tropes do not have to be fulfilled. In this way, it is freeing. A work of love and naturalism built around an affection for what art can do and show. It is an achingly human work, unfettered by cinematic ephemera and able to just be. It is slighter, kinder and less essential than a lot of director Hong’s work, but it is so by design. Quite simply, it is just lovely.