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BUSAN — Early on in Shin Youn-shick’s The Russian Novel one character tells another that he’s, “Slow, long and complicated.” Truer words were rarely spoken, as that short sentence succinctly sums up this film, which does indeed play out like a signature Russian literary tragedy. However, writer-director Shin is no Turgenev or Dostoevsky. Despite some interesting ideas about the value of art and who among us is fit to judge it (ironic given this is judgmental film review), The Russian Novel suffers from bloating and misguided narrative decisions that neuter any compelling forward momentum the film manages to generate. This is strictly film festival stuff with little chance at art house exposure—particularly given its ungainly run time and frequently sloppy subtitles.
Bad budding writer Shin-hyo (Kang Shin-hyo), in fine Russian protagonist fashion, comes from all sorts of disadvantage. He’s an uneducated, barely literate dropout with hardly any family and a dead end job. He does, however, possess a burning desire to become a great author, akin to his literary idol, Kim Ga-lim. It so happens that Shin-hyo’s one friend, Seong-hwan, is Kim’s son. Shin-hyo pesters Seong-hwan and an accomplished young woman author called Kyung-mi into giving him all manner of advice and finally finagles an introduction to the great man so that he can read his work. This, of course, blows up in his face, with Kim calling Shin-hyo’s work “trash.” Summarily dismissed, he spirals into depression (rendered by that classic scene of artistic distress—tossing his manuscripts into the river), only to be saved by the preacher’s daughter, Jae-hye. Wanting to be encouraging and a little bit in love with him, Jae-hye re-types the novels and then promptly poisons him (as one is wont to do). And that’s just the first 90 minutes of the film and only about a quarter of the players.
The Russian Novel has so many threads and characters running through it it’s hard to find the energy to care about any of them—least of all Shin-hyo. His sniveling and self-pity get tired really quickly, leaving a gaping maw where there should be a main character for viewers to connect with. Shin’s warm, sepia-toned “past” is quite richly shot (by DOP Choi Yong-jin) even if the use of sepia to signal history is as old as the hills, but the multiple narrators and gimmick of using actors’ names for the characters only muddies an already muddled narrative.
Much better is the shorter second part of the story, where Shin-hyo (now played by the far more engaging Kim In-soo) wakes up after 27 years in a coma. While he was sleeping as it were, someone dropped his re-worked manuscripts with Seong-hwan, who got them published. The once-failed Shin-hyo awakens as a literary sensation. As well as ever so lightly touching on our collective determinations of artworks as classics or otherwise, part two is something of a literary mystery: Shin-hyo knows he didn’t write the final words that made him famous (however, Shin-hyo’s return from the dead to a vastly different world barely earns a nod) and he wants to figure out who did. Allegedly the second part of a trilogy about middle-aged romance (!), The Russian Novel would benefit from a great deal of judicious editing that would refocus the story on the more transfixing version of Shin-hyo—which would be the middle-aged one.
Production company: Luz Y Sonidos
Producer Kim Ji-hyoung
Director: Shin Youn-shick
Cast: Kang Shin-hyo, Kim In-soo, Kyeong Seong-hwan, Lee Jae-hye, Lee Kyong-mee, Kim Jeong-seok, Lee Yoo-mee, Lee Bit-na, Cheong Hoon-hee, Park Min-jeong
Screenwriter: Shin Youn-shick
Director of photography: Choi Yong-jin
Production designer: Choi Yong-jin
Music: Kim Shin-il
Editor: Kim Jeong-hoon
No rating, 140minutes
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