In Hong Sang-soo’s latest study in small moments and chance encounters, a visit to an old friend prompts a writer in crisis to try something new.
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By Austin Considine
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Amid the wonderfully diverse and daring output of the South Korean film industry in recent decades, the director Hong Sang-soo has been quietly, prolifically making features of the utmost insight and sensitivity — nearly 30 since 1996 — that have nothing to do with the genre-play, melodrama or over-the-top violence associated with some of his better known compatriots.
His most recent picture, “The Novelist’s Film,” is no exception, a Chekhovian study in small moments and chance encounters, which is to say it is a study of human beings as they really live: ambiguously and without exposition, spontaneously and without tidy motives or resolution.
Much of what typifies Hong’s work will feel familiar in “The Novelist’s Film”: the budget (low); the dialogue (natural); the characters (creative types in crisis); the camera (mostly a fixed, single shot per scene). The story is likewise reliably spare: On a visit to an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) outside Seoul, the novelist Junhee (Lee Hye-young) has a run-in with a movie director who once jilted her professionally (Kwon Hae-hyo) and a famous actress, Kilsoo (Hong’s longtime collaborator Kim Min-hee), who has stepped away from acting indefinitely.
Junhee has been struggling creatively herself, and she is prompted to pursue her own experimental short film, in which she urges Kilsoo to participate. Her request, like many of her conversations, is awkwardly frank. Meaning teems in the uncomfortable silences and deflections; each platitude contains multitudes. Is Kilsoo interested or playing nice?
Hong works fast, rarely preparing scripts more than a day in advance, which may help explain how his films can be so talky without feeling scripted — a minor miracle each time he does it, which is about once a year. Long may he run-and-gun.
The Novelist’s Film
Not rated. In Korean, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes.
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