Coldness reigns in Hong Sang-soo’s middle-of-the-road drama.
“Are you happy?”
You know a film isn’t sure what it’s doing when its IMDb synopsis says it’s “potentially […] a metaphor for modern life”. I’m all for vagueness of purpose, but something about veteran filmmaker Hong Sang-soo’s latest oeuvre doesn’t feel quite as fresh, fun or even interesting in comparison to some of his earlier work. It details the (potential) last few days of Young-hwan, an ageing poet (Ki Joo-bong) who invites his two sons Kyung-goo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang) to see him one last time. The thing is, Young-hwan doesn’t really have a reason for thinking he’s dying, he just does.
Meanwhile, a young woman named Sang-hee (Hong favourite Kim Min-hee) has travelled to the hotel to escape her broken heart, after her boyfriend leaves her – rather abruptly, it seems. She is visited by her friend (Song Seon-mi) and the two talk love, life and everything else, only interacting with the other three in as cursory a way as possible. Young-hwan meets them outside, and after a comically awkward (which becomes excrutiatingly long) conversation, the two groups almost never really talk. Oh, I guess the friend steals the gloves from one of the sons’ cars.
It’s tough to call the story, penned by director Hong, a story. Hotel by the River is more a collection of moods, pieced together by the construct of time than it is a real story. Young-hwan sighs and looks out of the window aimlessly about as much as he stammers through real conversation, while his two sons don’t fare much better. In a way, it’s strikingly realistic – as is the case with estranged families trying to reconnect – but it’s also incredibly tedious. Hong has made Hotel by the River so slice-of-life that the audience is left feeling like they’re awkwardly intruding in the lives of others. But at least its sentimentality is well-placed.
The thing is that the issues aren’t particularly engaging so it’s not even like you even really want to snoop. One son is divorced but won’t tell his father. The father is thinking he’ll probably die soon, but doesn’t really tell anyone. It makes for an interesting dynamic, to see the father bring his kids all the way up here, only for him to immediately realise he doesn’t have a tonne of things to say to them. The awkwardness seeps into scene like it’s a Noah Baumbach movie, but the humour is just a bit too thin and the drama a bit too slow for it to stick.
Hong’s camerawork, however, is perfect in its simplicity. Shooting in a blindingly bright black and white, the entire film feels absolutely ice cold. This is Hong at his best, and his usual flair hasn’t diminished over the years. The camera stays still for lingering shots, or pans gently across a room, and everything is very calm. This is no accident: the movie wants to move at the speed of its characters. The wintry isolation is really felt here, and it gives the film some much needed personality.
The thing is that it’s all there, all the stuff you expect: the sly jokes, the moments of self-reference (notably the inclusion of younger son Byung-soo as an “ambivalent” director) and the irony, but it all feels a bit tired here. Like, say, Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, this film feels like a collection of cut conversations and B-roll footage from other films, repurposed and made into another film. By not giving us anything new to mull over – or something old in a new style – Hong just sort of goes through the motions. It’s still decent, but it’s just not as gripping as it could have been. Watch some of Hong’s earlier, similar films (there are plenty), and save this one for another time.
Verdict: Hotel by the River is about as much fun as meeting your estranged father and not talking about your divorce.
Overall entertainment: 5.5/10
Sex: 0/10 but you know those two girls are banging
Hotel coffee: Atrocious and expensive
Appropriate gifts for your middle-aged sons: a ballerina pig (?) and a narwhal
Hotel by the River (2018)
Director: Sang-soo Hong
Writer: Sang-soo Hong
Young-hwan – Ki Joo-bong
Sang-hee – Kim Min-hee
Kyung-goo – Kwon Hae-hyo
Byung-soo – Yu Jun-sang
Yeon-ju – Song Seonmi
Hotel by the River (2018)
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Writer: Hong Sang-soo
Ki Joo-bong – Young-hwan
Kim Min-hee – Sang-hee
Kwon Hae-hyo – Kyung-goo
Yu Jun-sang – Byung-soo
Song Seonmi – Yeon-ju