With two films in this year’s New York Film Festival and five in just the last two years, Hong Sang-soo is at risk of being known as much for his prolific pace as for his movies themselves. Some critics feel his pace betrays a lack of thought and rigor, while others think it suggests an artist at the height of his powers. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but Sang-soo’s abundant output of films that all feature similar themes and motifs allow his films to be considered very differently from most American filmmakers. Instead of working for several years on a film and then trying to change gears with different material, Sang-soo is able to produce variations on a theme, more akin to the working style of a painter or musician. Like a painter or musician, it probably won’t hurt to skip some of the lesser efforts, but it makes it all the more noticeable when Sang-soo introduces a different element.
“Hotel by the River” features many of Sang-soo’s familiar ingredients – a melancholic protagonist, copious drinking, chance encounters – yet the persistent shadow of death and darkness gives more depth to the small encounters on display. The story orbits around two poles, the first of which is Young-wan (Ki Joo-bong), a prominent poet who has come to the resort town to take stock of his life before the death he believes is imminent, despite no doctor’s diagnosis. In a glimpse of the film’s split between heavier themes of life and death and lighter moments of comedy, he also chose that specific hotel because he happened to be offered a free room by the owner, a fan with whom the poet soon wears out his welcome. Young-wan summons his two adult sons to see him, but when they’re finally brought together after a series of miscommunications, the family has little to say to each other. His younger son is a film director, through which Sang-soo allows other characters to level veiled criticisms of his own work (“he’s so ambivalent”), who fears he is incapable of love because of his parent’s unhappiness. His older son has recently divorced but hides this as he lets his father praise him for having settled down with a good woman.
The other pole of the narrative is Sang-hee (Sang-soo favorite Kim Min-hee), who has come to the hotel to get away after a difficult breakup, enlisting a friend to come and commiserate with her about life and men (“men are incapable of real love”). The paths of the two women and the three men don’t cross so much as run parallel and just barely make contact, allowing each group to project their thoughts onto the other. Frankly, the women’s storyline isn’t developed enough to really stand on its own but rather serves as a reflection of the men’s concerns, a vision of the women they’ve left behind and whose value and complexity they diminish with the evasive language they use to keep from fully reckoning with their behavior.
Shot in a crisp, austere black and white palette that emphasizes empty landscapes and distances between the characters, “Hotel by the River” unfolds in Sang-soo’s usual laid-back philosophical manner, but it feels significantly different from his other works because of how the blunt invocations of death change the tenor of every interaction. Unlike his protagonists in other films, Young-wan’s drinking and melancholy don’t seem like light-hearted foibles, but rather like manifestations of a death-drive soon reaching its conclusion. Where in other films the miscommunications with women are played for laughs that suggest they’re merely bumps on the road to a later happiness, here they feel more fundamentally broken, with sorrowful repercussions that reach across generations. Combined with a narrative with a more defined ending, this darker tone suits Sang-soo’s minor-key ruminations, injecting more tension and pathos into his trademark conversations. [B+]
Here’s the trailer for the film: