Into the Unknown: Hong Sang-soo’s “Hotel by the River”
There are several telling signs that Hotel by the River (2018) is a film by Hong Sang-soo: subdued cinematography, featuring long-take shots that emphasize the full-bodied performances by a regular coterie of actors in the director’s stable; selective use of quietly driving orchestral music to convey a general mood suggestive of a stroll towards fate; and characters acting and re-acting, revealing themselves through their encounters with others over coffee, BBQ, and, of course, soju. (What would a Hong film be without this particular libation?) These are the constants in a reliably consistent body of work.
Hong isn’t on autopilot though. For a filmmaker with such a coherent oeuvre, such a rapid rate of production (making at least one film per year since 2009), the changes in content and style are more pronounced from movie to movie. And the shifts in formal choices that Hong employs for Hotel is positively seismic. It feels like a transitional work.
Before the story even begins, in voiceover, Hong tells us the principle cast and crew, the title of the film, the production company, and that Hotel was shot between January 29 and February 14 of 2018. Instead of static camera setups with ever so slight tilts and pans, Hong uses handheld shots, which organically blend in with his overall aesthetic. The subject matter is fresh too, for Hong, who usually concentrates on romantic dilemmas, now sets his sights on family dynamics. What he’s looking at, in effect, is a different kind of love.
A middle-aged poet, Young-whan (Ki Joo-bong), decamps at a hotel (pointedly called “Heimat,” conjuring associations of home) after becoming friendly with the owner. We find him awakening, disheveled in his messy room, peering out at another guest (Kim Min-hee) from the balcony, and awaiting for the arrival of his two estranged sons, the older Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and the younger Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang), a filmmaker. There’s a Hongian parallel to this story, a minor one focusing on the guest, Sang-hee, that the poet saw outside his window. She’s waiting on her friend (Song Seon-mi) to arrive, at which point they’ll take naps, sip wine, drink coffee, eat dinner, and talk about Sang-hee’s relationship. She still dreams of her ex, a married man who feared failure by going steady with her. At least that’s how Sang-hee interprets the breakup. A few times over the course of the film, the lives of these people briefly converge and then disperse.
This venture forth into unknown territory yields uneven results. As always, Hong tracks the moment-by-moment vicissitudes of social behavior. You quickly learn the dynamic between the brothers as they wait to meet their father in the hotel’s café. Just by the flow of their talk, you know Byung-soo is slightly vain while Kyung-soo is jealous of his good looks and life as a filmmaker. That’s why he lashes out, calling Byung-soo, “Buffoon,” a nickname from childhood. When Father finally arrives, favoritism is readily apparent: Byung-soo, with all sincerity, says he missed him. Young-whan rather curtly, rather coldly answers that he did too — and then turns to the side and affectionately grabs Kyung-soo’s shoulder. It’s in character-revealing moments like these that Hotel is at its best.
Where the movie stumbles is in the orchestration and presentation of realities. There’s a literalness, giving the film a simplicity uncharacteristic of Hong. It goes beyond reading the opening credits. When Young-whan recites one of his poems, it’s visualized. When he talks about past events, it’s visualized. On the other hand, Hotel ends on a quietly beguiling shot that destabilizes and re-orients what came before. The movie alternates between being explicit and being ambiguous, but never quite coalescing the two.
Hotel by the River is something new, something different. Hong is stretching himself, creating another tragicomic work — but this time the emphasis is on the tragic. It’s a film of strained, distant relationships that’s hampered by the need to clearly differentiate what is real, what is memory, and what is fantasy. Just because you can represent these last two doesn’t mean you have to. Hotel isn’t as sophisticated nor as elusive as prior works, but one can’t fault Hong for taking risks and growing.
Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River opens at Manhattan’s Film Society of Lincoln Center on February 15.