Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 New York Film Festival.
For a guy who’s often derided for “making the same movie over and over again,” Hong Sang-soo sure likes to mix things up (at least within the narrow confines of his lo-fi, Rohmer-esque aesthetic). If the international film community has yet to grow tired of the prolific auteur’s semi-annual comedies — bitter scrambles of soju and self-reflexivity that often revolve around horny male filmmakers, the women they refuse to understand, and the alcohol that forces their respective frustrations to the surface — that’s because Hong continues to find playful new ways of organizing his obsessions.
He’s got a natural genius for rearranging the furniture, and it makes a virtue of the fact that he’s always working inside the same house. In that light, the relatively gentle, meditative, and straightforward “Hotel by the River” is like everything and nothing that Hong has made before; to say that it’s “just another Hong” movie is an accurate way of emphasizing what makes it special.
His third consecutive film in black-and-white (and the fifth in a row to star the filmmaker’s brilliantly expressive romantic partner, Kim Min-hee), “Hotel by the River” sets itself apart from the second it begins. A male voice speaks to us over the opening credits, saying the names aloud before coolly informing the crowd as to when and where the movie was shot (down to the specific days). Is Hong confronting the factory-like output of his films, or was this just a cute idea he had one day in the editing room? The answer is probably yes. Either way, there’s a wry sheepishness to the whole gambit, and it anticipates a sedate four-hander that finds Hong a bit deeper in his feelings than usual.
The first character introduced is an aging poet named Young-whan (Hong regular Ki Joo-bong), who has come to a rather empty provincial hotel on the frozen shores of the Han River. His plan: Invite his two semi-estranged large adult sons to join him for a farewell summit, and then die. Not that he’s sick or anything; he just has an inkling that his time has come. A snippet from his doddering inner monologue: “I’m doing something foolish again.”
Meanwhile, as Young-whan calls his full-grown kids and negotiates to meet them in the café, the lady in the next room is cajoling her friend to bring some coffee upstairs (as per Hong’s custom, men and women operate in direct contradiction to each other, which makes for all sorts of awkwardly fumbling amusement when they collide along the way). This is Sang-hee (Kim), and she’s come to the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter in order to recover from a break-up, and from the large burn across her left hand. She may have been in a car accident. Young-whan may have been involved. Those details aren’t meant to intrigue you — they’re inferences that viewers are free to do with as they please.
These two plot threads unspool in parallel lines that abruptly criss-cross every once in a while, the way that someone’s pencil might slip if they were writing in the backseat of a car as it ran over a pothole. Neither Young-whan nor Sang-hee is ever far from sight, as the hotel is small, and there’s nowhere else for them to go; the tundra outside is so deep and complete that the whole film might as well be set inside a snow globe, and the stark contrast between Sang-hee’s black coat and the river’s white banks might be one of the most classically beautiful images that Hong has ever allowed. Fittingly, the only laugh-out-loud moment (in a film that’s otherwise full of chortles) comes when Young-whan approaches Sang-hee and her friend (Song Seon-mi) in the cold, and tells the two women how beautiful they look against the wintry backdrop. And then he tells them again. And again. And again, until it seems as though he’s suffering from some kind of hyper-specific tic.
More likely, it’s just that the divorced poet — for all of his expressive gifts — has no idea how to talk to women. That problem appears to run in the family. His younger son, Byung-soo (Yu Jan-sang) is a well-known film director who isn’t dating because he’s too afraid of the opposite sex. It’s a good thing he doesn’t overhear Sang-hee dismissing his work as ambivalent, and sniping that he’s “not a real auteur” (if that comment misses him, it manages to zing behind the camera and hit Hong square in the chest). The older son, Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) refuses to tell his dad that his marriage has fallen apart.
The interactions between these three men are so awkward and stilted that the conversation quickly devolves into Byung-soo bragging about how tall he is, and Young-whan expressing his deep parental guilt by buying each of the boys a hideous stuffed animal. “By nature, men are incapable of love,” one of them concludes after they finally make the switch from coffee to booze, and it’s unclear if he’s talking about romance or family. Or both. Regardless, Sang-hee and her friend curl up in bed together like old lovers. It’s another typical Hong trope: The men need the women, and the women need themselves. Never the twain shall meet. Not only is “Hotel by the River” the most watchable and inviting thing that Hong has made in a very long time, at times, it almost feels like the raw material for a bonafide romantic-comedy, albeit one that’s haunted by a slippery kind of sadness.
Reviewing “Yourself and Yours,” Hong’s last unambiguous home run, this critic wrote that “his films, even the ones that ostensibly center on women, are consumed with the anxiety that choosing to be with one person is the same thing as choosing not to be with billions of others; that choosing who we are is a process of constant negation.” And in “Hotel by the River,” that negation has congealed into an undefined guilt that’s spread equally between everyone on-screen. Young-whan says that “you can’t live your life based on guilt,” but the rest of us manage to pull it off. In hindsight, perhaps this poignantly contemplative film is so digestible because its director wants everyone to hear his confession. It’s enough to make you wonder what Hong is so guilty about. His demeanor? His artistic habits? His decision to leave his wife for a beautiful young actress? As the poet Young-whan once said: “How should I know what he wants to forget?”
“Hotel by the River” is playing at the 2018 New York Film Festival. Cinema Guild will release the film on February 15.