Hotel by the River
2019, NR, 96 min. Directed by Hong Sang-soo. Starring Ki Joo-bong, Kim Min-hee, Song Seon-mi, Kwon Hae-hyo, Yu Jun-sang.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., March 1, 2019
South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo’s work has often been compared to Woody Allen's, but that seems somewhat reductive, the through line here being a prolific output and a predilection for an obsession in mining the comedic depths of the relationships we hold in our lives. Be they lover, family, or friend, Hong composes his films as a series of moments between the characters that while not often reaching a finality, linger in the mind days later.
His new film, Hotel by the River, offers no mystery in its setting. The aging poet Young Hwan (Ki) has holed up in an idyllic hotel, and while parsing out his next book, invites his two sons to visit him. He has had a vision of his death, and wants to mend those ties that bind. Add to that another occupant of the hotel, Sang Hee (Hong mainstay Kim) has checked in to nurse heartache from a breakup and a burn wound on her hand. She calls her best friend Yeon Ju (Song) to aid in her recovery, and the two wander the grounds in a beautiful black and white snow-laden landscape, when not drinking or napping together in their hotel room. These two narrative strands only come together occasionally, and often in rueful ways. The father must contend with two estranged sons, one of which is a successful filmmaker (a classic Hong trope) bristling with resentment for his family. The interplay of pauses, gestures, and camera zooms are the tools that Hong has utilized over three decades of filmmaking to capture the absurd and the profound in often unexpected ways. The director is notorious for not having a working script, writing the day’s scenes the morning of, and improvising at any given moment. The internet tells me that this film was shot in two weeks, and while Hong’s off-the-cuff style seems restless at times, it coagulates like a small scab that never quite stops itching.
“I’m tired of him, he always says the same thing,” laments one of the sons about their father in Hotel by the River. The same might be said for Hong, but it is in his intense examinations of these tributaries of the human condition, done with such grace and care, he has mapped out moments of humanity that are often lived, but rarely seen.