Writing is not the most cinematic of activities, which is probably why films about novelists or screenwriters usually concern their problems with putting words on the page. For the blocked protagonists of Adaptation (2002), Secret Window (2004) and The Shining (1980), the search for inspiration takes them away from the typewriter to stalk contributors to The New Yorker, cover-up murders, or to go insane at an out-of-season hotel. By contrast, the novelist in the South Korean thriller Bestseller has no shortage of ideas, but is unable to cash her royalty cheques due to recurrent charges of plagiarism. While promoting her latest novel, author Hee-soo (Uhm Jung-hwa) is accused of stealing the scenario of an unpublished manuscript that she read while participating in a judging panel. Two years later, Hee-soo is a pale-faced, pill-popping wreck, separated from her academic husband Yun-joon (Ryoo Seung-ryong) due to the scandal and struggling to write the comeback novel needed to redeem her reputation with critics and readers. On the recommendation of her editor, she takes her daughter Yun-hee (Park Sa-rang) and temporarily relocates from Seoul to a remote town. Although the already on-edge Hee-soo is unsettled by the strange events that occur once she and Yun-hee have settled in to their villa, the atmosphere of the place is sufficient to inspire the writing of a new novel, thereby sending her back to the top of the bestseller list. Unfortunately, she is again accused of plagiarism, necessitating a return to the town to investigate its history.
Bestseller aims to compete with the kind of mainstream Hollywood thrillers that have no concerns about post-screening criticism regarding a reliance on ridiculous plot twists providing that the audience has at least enjoyed the ride. Realising that the novel she has written – a murder story set in a small town – might be an account of a real crime, Hee-soo refuses to leave the town until she has uncovered the truth, leading to lots of running around and the obligatory last-minute revelations. The central character in a thriller such as this should be an audience surrogate, but Hee-soo is hard to sympathise with; early exchanges with her daughter and estranged husband point to a selfish, careerist streak that has caused familial neglect, although her self-absorbed state is eventually put into post-traumatic context. Uhm pulls out all the stops in her portrayal of a stressed-out writer, but in doing so pitches her performance somewhere between neurotic and hysterical; the nervous tics and panic attacks are arguably over-done as Hee-soo seems to be having a breakdown even before anything has actually happened, meaning that the paranoia of Bestseller peaks early and then has nowhere to go. Making the character of Yun-joon more proactive would have provided some balance to Hee-soo’s histrionics, but her husband is too indecisive to have much of a role in the proceedings; Yu-joon is mostly present to throw around some expository theories about plagiarism and how likely it is that someone who has already plagiarised will do so again.
While it would be unfair to accuse writer-director Lee Jeong-ho of such creative theft, it should be noted that Bestseller does borrow elements from other supernaturally-tinged thrillers – Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Orphanage (2007) are in the mix – with these narrative lineaments being reshuffled in a bid to keep the audience guessing about what is really going on. Bestseller has a steady build-up with the familiar ingredients falling into place (a nervous heroine, a daughter with a possible connection to the spirit world, an old house, the small town community that is not accustomed to having visitors, bumps in the night and strange visions). However, the twist that occurs at the halfway mark is the kind of reveal that is usually reserved for the final act, with Lee taking the film into murder-mystery territory as the ghost story of the first hour is replaced by a rather obvious whodunit. Although this could be regarding as an example of genre-splicing, it could more accurately be described as genre-shifting; the events of the second half are certainly linked to earlier occurrences, but scenes of Hee-soo being chased around a rural area by murderous locals who have misleadingly informed her that, ‘people living here are good, honest people’, are far removed from the psychological approach of the set-up. Lee does not seem to suffer from writer’s block as there is enough material here for two movies, but this unfortunately means that Bestseller ends up being almost as unbalanced as its beleaguered heroine.