Hotel by the River (2018) by Hong Sang-soo
Review by Zach Dennis
I’ve been enjoying Hong’s career for the past few years after a number of our contributors passed along the quiet elegance of his stories. Hong films feel like a dictionary example of “this is not for everyone” as the pace, narrative structure and all around feel of his films feels foreign — not because he hails from Korea — but that they seem to drift through time with no real definition.
The same could be said about his latest, Hotel by the River, a story that finds an old poet (Joo-Bong Ki) hiding away in a...yes, hotel by a river. After two weeks of being there, he calls his two sons — one a family man (Hae-hyo Kwon) and another a film director beginning to generate buzz over his last movie (Joon-Sang Yoo). The sons are necessarily estranged from their father, but the relationship is distant and his history with their mother has created a rift that neither has fully come to terms with.
Also taking place at the hotel is a reunion between two friends (Min-hee Kim and Seon-mi Song) who have had a rough stretch with relationships and seek a respite (and for most of the movie, a nice lie down).
Hong has been playing with more narrative ambitions, specifically in my favorite of his recent work, Right Now, Wrong Then, but this one seems straight to the point and that makes it almost an outlier. His characters usually find ambiguous endings, or ones that lack any sort of change from what they went through over the course of the story. Hotel by the River feels more tangible than that as the concept of death lingers over the story (particularly the one between the father and his sons) more heavily than it has in any of the films of Hong’s I’ve seen.
It carries the usual trademarks, including an almost sad meta-joke on the director by the two female friends, who remark that he makes good movies but they are ones no one actually sees, and that his most recent was a little much. The director doesn’t seem to shy away from digging into himself or his own life (as those who watched On a Beach At Night Alone can attest to), but there is something more contemplative and dejected about this narrative.
I won’t spoil where it ends up going, but it meets a more defined ending than I’ve seen in his other movies and this divergence from the norm while still keeping the aesthetic he has established was interesting to me. Other than the narrative, this is absolutely the most gorgeous of his films that I’ve seen as his choice to have the film in black-and-white plays pleasingly against the falling snow, frozen river and bankside village that looks to the hotel.
For fans of Hong, there’s a lot to uncover in Hotel by the River and I’m wondering what this signals for future work of his. The only negative I have is that we spent the morning prior to my watching of this solving minor issues for the weekend and waking up after a late flight in for you all so this was a nice slumbering movie as the softness of the cotton hotel sheets and slow fall of the snow was everything romantic and more.