Set in a hotel by the Han River in South Korea, Hotel by the River abounds in wintry landscapes that threaten to swallow people up in blasts of bright white light. This feeling of being eclipsed has an existential quality, as the film’s characters are all facing crises springing from infidelity, loneliness, alcoholism, lust, and parental abandonment. Yet it’s also occasionally exhilarating for them to feel trapped by a storm that encourages their mind to wander. Writer-director Hong Sang-soo sustains these simultaneous feelings of lost-ness and reverie throughout Hotel by the River, informing the film with a ghostly pallor that’s somewhat new to his work.
Hotel by the River exudes a casualness that starkly contrasts with Hong’s enraged and almost abstract Grass. The structural experimentation of many of Hong’s recent films has been abandoned in Hotel by the River for a wandering yet more-or-less three-act structure. And Hong’s favorite theme—a man’s hypocritical and self-destructive pursuit of a woman—has been relegated here to a supplemental concern. Instead, the filmmaker dramatizes the reunion between an acclaimed poet, Younghwan (Ki Joo-bong), and his two adult sons, Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang). Younghwan is staying in the aforementioned hotel at length and free of charge, his state of impermanency affirming the surreal sense of anonymity that’s fostered by the winter landscapes. Kyung-soo and Byung-soo unite to come visit Younghwan at the old man’s request, reigniting a sibling rivalry.
This plot and setting invigorate Hong’s sense of aesthetics. Hotel by the River has compositions that are unusually epic in scope for Hong, correspondingly freeing the filmmaker of his often rigorous devotion to an alternating two- and three-shot editing pattern. Younghwan is introduced in a wonderfully suggestive medium shot, crouched over a table in his hotel room smoking. Younghwan has a handsomely grizzled face—he certainly looks the part of an acclaimed writer in the autumn of his life—and Hong drinks it in, allowing the audience to notice certain textures, such as the man’s defensive posture, which anticipates his unwillingness to let his sons in his room. Waiting for Kyung-soo and Byung-soo in the hotel café, Younghwan drifts to sleep, and the film seems to pleasurably drift with him, which rhymes with the frequent sleeping of another hotel guest, Sanghee (Kim Min-hee), who’s recovering from a breakup with a married man. Hotel by the River has a freeing sense of ambling along, yet it’s hung by a tight wire of emotional terror.
This open aesthetic allows us to play detective. Certain physical gestures elaborate on relationships in a matter of microseconds. One discerns that Byung-soo, though he barely moves, wants Younghwan to hug him early on in the film, which the old man either fails to notice or rebuffs. Kyung-soo and Byung-soo are also of contrasting body types, which is commented on more than once; the former is stocky, like his father, while the latter is tall and slender like his unseen mother. When the brothers sit across from one another at a table in the hotel diner, waiting for their father, we can feel them sizing one another up. Kwon gives Kyung-soo a coiled ferocity, informing him with a little man’s syndrome that’s amusing as well as poignant, while Yu invests Byung-soo with a social awkwardness that’s unusual to Hong’s on-screen surrogates. A filmmaker on the rise, Byung-soo isn’t the usual Hong ladykiller, but an artist lost in his own mind, like his father.
The respective dramas of Younghwan and his sons and Sanghee occasionally intersect, though this is the rare Hong film in which men and women are largely relegated to separate spaces. When Younghwan compliments the beauty of Sanghee and her friend, his gestures are elegant and a little defeated, coming from a man sitting on the sidelines of erotic love. Yet at least Younghwan isn’t bracketed off from women by pride, as his sons are, as the father understands that opportunity is fleeting. Near the end of the film, Younghwan honors Sanghee and her friend with a poem that represents his bold reckoning with his guilt over abandoning his children early in life. This poem, along with other dialogue spoken throughout the film, has a rhetorical force that brings the narrative’s submerged emotions to the forefront.
Some of the film’s greatest scenes are hauntingly inexplicable. When Younghwan recalls first arriving at the hotel, he paces the neighborhood, wandering by a wood pile in the midst of being chopped. He picks up an ax and swings at a log, as if contemplating another life. Younghwan also happens by a kennel of lovely white dogs, taking a moment to appreciate them. At another point in the film, Hong uses one of his characteristic zooms to home in on a cat crossing a pathway. A story of a poet, Hotel by the River comes to resemble a poetry collection itself, abounding in emotional currents and grace notes that are bracingly allowed to hang, free of reductive explication.