Though I scarcely have the time to read these days there are a few classic works of literature I always go back to. On the one hand the French Naturalists taught me morality and on the other the great Russian novels forced me to grapple with existentialism and taught me about love. Tolstoy, Dostoyesky, Pushkin, Lermontov, and more had the ability to tip the balance of life from one extreme to the next, all in the flick of a page. Leafing through ‘Anna Karenina’ was a two-week journey through the human kaleidoscope of love and suffering, while the brief weekend it took to absorb ‘A Hero of our Time’ was like a torrid love affair, which, like its protagonist, shone bright and brief.
Shin Young-shick’s new film The Russian Novel (though he recently completed production on his next feature Rough Play) is heavily indebted to the rich tradition of Russian writing. It doesn’t reach the same high or lows as the greatest works of that bygone era, but the quantity of characters, the brooding nature of their outlook and the general aura of the film are worthy of its name.
A young budding writer wants his friend’s father (a famed professor) to read his novel but he is told that he should revise it before doing so. Meeting with other artists in a warmly lit bar in Seoul and a quiet writer’s enclave in the countryside, he sets about improving his craft. He meets different women, all the while doubting and agonizing over his skills. Then one day, following a love affair gone wrong, he falls into a coma which he remains in for 27 years. When he wakes up, he is a middle-aged man and surprised to find out that he is now a national treasure, a revered writer whose sole masterpiece appears on many curriculums.
The two distinct sections of the film are each imbued with their own special atmosphere. The first, being the more stylized one, is sepia-toned and gorgeously photographed. Heady browns and greens swamp around the characters, whose lyrical musings liberally pour out into the rustic settings that the camera quietly takes in. The later half brings with it modernity and a more varied, albeit muted, color palette. Our romantic protagonist is both in conflict over the false nature of his sudden fame and happy to enjoy the dandy spoils of a comfortable intellectual existence. A wry smile adorns his lips through most of his scenes. Since he was unconscious, the interceding decades have not brought him any more wisdom and experience yet the twisted accomplishment of his goal has completed his transition into a ‘superfluous man,’ not dissimilar to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
The film is a bit long and for all of its posturing, it isn’t always clear what Shin is seeking to achieve. Evocative as the film can be, it resembles the hero’s post-coma existence in that it may or may not be literary pretense. Stuck in both the past and present, the film, like most works seeking to channel bygone styles, is unsure of where it comes from. Mostly, it feels like a dream.
A redolent production that is both lush and simplistic, The Russian Novel is an ambitious exercise from the upcoming director Shin. Following the relatively straightforward romance The Fair Love, here he has expanded his range as a cineaste considerably. One of the 2012’s most unique and lush Korean films.
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