The Novelist’s Film and Walk Up

Kim Minhee and Lee Hyeyoung in Hong Sangsoo’s The Novelist’s Film (2022)

In Tale of Cinema, his brilliant book on the work of Hong Sangsoo, Dennis Lim, the artistic director of the New York Film Festival, writes that the prolific Korean director “always makes some version of the film you expect of him; the astonishment is just how many versions exist.” Last year, the NYFF programmed two films by Hong, Introduction, the winner of a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay in Berlin, and In Front of Your Face, Hong’s first collaboration with Lee Hyeyoung.

The daughter of director Lee Manhee, Lee starred in several box-office hits in the 1980s, won a full shelf of awards for her work in theater, and remains a popular performer on Korean television. She also appears in Hong’s twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth features, both of them screening this year in New York. In The Novelist’s Film, which won the Berlinale’s Grand Jury Prize, Lee is Junhee, a writer running low on inspiration who seeks out an old friend—a former writer who now owns and runs her own bookstore—and meets a new one—Kilsoo (Kim Minhee), a well-known actress who has put her career on pause.

“For some time now, Hong has been centering his loose, limpid storytelling on women,” writes Jessica Kiang in Sight and Sound. Junhee is “one of his most vivid heroines. Films this interested in presenting a rounded portrait of a woman of Junhee’s age are already pretty rare; films presenting this playful an account of an older woman’s frustrating yet fruitful relationship with her own creative impulses are hen’s teeth.” In her conversations with other creative types, Junhee “laces the painfully polite small talk with the passive-aggressive darts of someone who feels she’s owed more validation than she gets,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter.

It’s Kim’s Kilsoo who reignites Junhee’s imagination. The novelist decides to become a filmmaker. “Hong has always given viewers the impression that he—or, rather, he and Kim—are making exactly the film they want to make, but rarely before The Novelist’s Film has it seemed to bring the two of them such pure bliss,” writes Mark Asch at the Playlist. The film wraps with what Jordan Cronk, writing in the Notebook, calls “a fourth-wall breaking sequence in which the film-within-the-film acts as a conduit to convey something so fragile and intimate about Hong’s relationship with Kim that an abrupt shift to color is the only way to properly express the beauty of the moment. It may be the single most moving sequence in Hong’s filmography.”

Lee Hyeyoung plays Ms. Kim, an interior decorator who owns a four-story building, in Walk Up, Hong’s “trickiest film since The Day After (2017), and his most intricately structured effort since The Day He Arrives (2012),” as Lawrence Garcia sees it at In Review Online. Reviewing Walk Up for Screen, Jonathan Romney writes that “while Hong’s films are often highly comic, albeit in a subtly dry fashion, they can also be intensely melancholy; and few are sadder, or indeed more elaborately perplexing, than this.”

“Inasmuch as Hong would ever write one, Ms. Kim becomes the villain of the piece,” writes Jessica Kiang, this time for Variety. “Forever in the same outfit, forever with her kitten heels clicking unsteadily up and down the concrete steps of the building, she goes from enigmatic, commanding career woman to prying landlady with boundary issues and a fondness for alcohol that, even in typically squiffy Hongland, seems excessive.”

But Walk Up isn’t Ms. Kim’s story. Instead, Hong’s latest centers on Byungsoo, a film director played by Kwon Haehyo. He tours the building with his daughter (Park Miso), moves in with Sunhee (Song Sunmi), who runs a restaurant on the second floor, and eventually makes it to the top floor with another girlfriend, Jiyoung (Cho Yunhee). How much time slips by between these passages is left to the viewer to piece together. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody notes that Walk Up’s “skippings-ahead, doublings-back, ambiguities, surprises, and self-contradictions turn the building and the premise into a laboratory—for Hong’s distinctive, idiosyncratic characters.”

At Slant, Chuck Bowen observes that as the final credits roll and “the film’s emotions reverberate, one might be startled to recall that over the course of Walk Up several relationships dissolved, a career hit an impasse, a potentially life-threatening illness arose, and an atheist reached out to God out of desperation. Hong doesn’t code these events melodramatically; respecting his characters’ evasions, he casually establishes lonely, terrifying contexts. With each new film, Hong’s work becomes more subtextual, more fraught, even funnier.”

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