Art itself has dissected and explored the idea of an artist’s block in countless ways and through countless mediums. Hong Sang-soo’s more monolithic style of film-making sees a pleasant, soothing change while observing that very concept. It’s not that his films haven’t been touched with his auteurism before–but here it finds the kind of comfort that provides an essential distraction from the troubling emotions of the characters while helping them out with the same. The Novelist’s Film (So-seol-ga-ui yeong-hwa) premiered at the 72nd Berlin International Film festival and brought home the Silver Bear Grand Jury for the film-maker who happens to be a part of a very small crew that worked in this film.
Whether Hong Sang-soo has been through it or not; his vision for Jun-hee’s (Lee Hye-young) writer’s block feels increasingly authentic as we follow her day of chance-meeting kindred spirits. The stark black and white opens with Jun-hee overhearing an argument between her old friend whom she’s about to ambush with a surprise visit. Jun-hee showing genuine interest in learning a few lines of sign language from the girl is the beginning of her rigidity chipping away. The cliche of new experiences helping with creative blockages is perhaps not so overplayed after all.
With a screenplay that often feels like an unintended group therapy, all the characters get to offer up their confessions. Jun-hee’s bookstore owner friend is the first to mention the freedom that comes with consuming what you really enjoy without worrying about what others may think of your choices. She now reads books that the fear of judgment and maybe even self-criticism had kept her from ever touching and in her own words, she has never enjoyed reading this much.
Art’s acceptance and materialistic success–while very much about how people will perceive it–can never be sustainable if that’s all the artist is thinking about. The theme of artistic freedom finds itself being played with during the passive-aggressive exchange between Jun-hee and Director Park (Kwon Hae-hyo) who had once rejected her book for a more lucrative deal. Their awkward pleasantries reveal that he isn’t driven by the same money-making passion anymore and that he would rather make something that his wife deems “clear”.
With the bioscope shot gradually zooming in to the park road visible from the tower, Jun-hee’s urge of taking a walk on the beautiful spring day takes over her impulses of going where the day takes her. The film takes every opportunity to tighten up the theme with comfort when necessary. But it doesn’t shy away from introducing conflicts to assert its opinion. Director Park’s heavy-handed approach towards Kill-soo (Kim Min-hee), an actress who is taking a break from work and has been living nearby, gets met with aggressive criticism by Jun-hee. She makes it clear that taking a break is necessary. Not using one’s talent isn’t necessarily a waste of it.
Meeting an actress that the novelist admires dearly and as luck would have it–her husband’s nephew Gyeongwoo (Sung-guk Ha) happens to be a film student. Jun-hee convinces them to be a part of a short film that she has always dreamed of making. She wants to cast Kill-soo and her potter husband in it and wants Gyeongwoo to capture the real emotions that would emerge from the couple’s interactions. Hong Sang-soo’s works have often observed random interactions between strangers carrying the style of authenticism. That style is seeing its safe exploration in most of the incidental conversations and finds its possible, more personal form in Jun-hee’s approach to her short film.
The promise of a light, fulfilling drunken conversation in a Hong Sang-soo film is one of life’s little treats. And we’re not to be disheartened in The Novelist’s Film as it not only has Jun-hee indulging in a relaxing evening of drinking with her new actress friend; the gathering is enlivened with the presence of all the comforting characters, including her old poet friend. Taking the responsibility of writing, editing, directing, producing, and much more; Hong Sang-soo still manages to quite possibly outdo himself by trusting the faithful beauty of the uncomplicated.
The burdens of keeping up with one’s own idea of greatness in art can hinder further creations. The Novelist’s Film is a celebration of the very originality that artists often push away in order to achieve what they haven’t even really felt or seen. A complete fictionalization of emotions will always come to a stop. The film succeeds in showing the way to undo that blockage without being preachy about the process. Even for the ones that won’t find relatability here, the film is soothing in ways that it may not have even intended to be. Fundamentally, A Novelist’s Film is a break that the characters needed in order to lie back and look at the ultimate purpose of their artistic mediums. It also makes us a part of the group, whether we belong or not.