Like the literary works its title describes, "The Russian Novel" is an incredibly dense, extended film in ways that go beyond one hundred forty minute runtime. Really, it may be more accurate to describe this as two films rather than one. Most descriptions spoil the movie's midway point, which takes so long to happen I was genuinely unsure whether the movie was going to deal with the "after" segment at all.
Really, throughout most of "The Russian Novel" I kept thinking that at any point the film could just end and there would already be a lot worth discussing. Sitting through the entire screening in one go is an exhausting experience, and it's often not at all clear where any of the story actually seems to be going. For the most part, narrative movements are eschewed in favor of extended character study.
The people in this movie are extremely pretentious. They not only think of themselves as possibly great writers, they write down their feelings and actions mentally as practice for later story material. As actual human beings they're horribly insufferable and difficult to sympathize with. There's a certain level of schadenfreude inherent as we watch them wander pointlessly around farmland, expecting to extract inspiration from about the coldest most indifferent landscape I've ever seen filmed.
Now, if you've ever read an actual Russian novel? Yeah, this is pretty much what they're about, too. Characters with pretensions to some sort of greatness attempt to prove themselves in a cold, indifferent world, oblivious to the fact that they probably don't deserve the fame they're trying to achieve anyway. Just writing that sentence made me feel kind of depressed, so you can imagine what it's like enduring one hundred forty minutes of it.
To be perfectly clear, there's nothing actually wrong with any of this. If the goal of "The Russian Novel" is to replicate the same sense of foreboding and introspection that accompanies reading actual Russian literature, then this film succeeds better than any direct attempt to adapt a Russian novel to screen to date. Everything in this film is deliberately designed with the medium in mind. Whereas a book might use verbal metaphors, "The Russian Novel" takes advantage of expert deliberate cinematography. Where a book has introspective thoughts because it's a staple of written word, "The Russian Novel" confines these tropes to those scenes where a character's introspection serves a deliberate purpose.
Of course, the flip side of this is that, to a person who doesn't especially like great literature and would certainly never be so daring as to try read a great Russian classic in a single sitting, "The Russian Novel" doesn't really offer much. The film may be a classic, but only in the sense that an extremely literary-minded person will be able to appreciate. It does not hold the viewer's hand, carefully explain what it's doing, and expect us to understand this as an engaging story simply on the literal level. It's a difficult film to watch- and so only recommended for those who want a challenge.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Russian Novel""
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