For Hong Sang-soo regulars there’s no denying the fact that this is overly familiar. Small story arcs that delve into heartbreak, self-loathing and hilarious cinematic self-reference are a common Sang-soo trait. However, with “Hotel by the River” the master minimalist drives in a poetic poignancy that helps you revel in its sturdy moments. Beautifully shot in melancholic black and white, the film posts most existential questions without focusing too much on the passage of time. I mean, yes! 6 odd-hours pass by when the heartbroken woman in the film sleeps with her friend beside her, but unlike the very recent ‘The Day After‘, it doesn’t rush off to newer perspectives.
Featuring regular Sang-soo cast and all his trademarks, the film begins and ends in the Hotel by the Han river. Seen through two perspectives that are both engulfed and at peace with the snowclad beauty outside, the film opens with an old poet Young-wan (Ki Joo-bong) who has asked his sons Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) & Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang) to pay him a visit at the hotel. Because of his celebrity stature, the hotel owner who is a fan has offered him a room to stay in. His sons, on the other hand, have their own success and failures that they reveal and hide alternatively.
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Also in the mix are two women whose stay at the hotel defines “sleeping in.” Sanghee (Hong’s regular muse Kim Minhee who looks like she walked straight out of her role from On the Beach at Night Alone) is getting over a heartbreaking breakup from a married man. Her simplistic, innocent being has undergone a dreading mental collapse since she had loved a little too much. Yeonju (Song Seonmi) is her best friend who comes over to the hotel to give her a comforting consolation. However, even her detachment from the real world feels like a recurring outcome of a bad dream. As they lay down on their beds we can see the coldness of the snowclad exterior calming their senses. The masculine insecurity can be seen simply when the two women discuss “By nature, men are just incapable of grasping love.“
The film, like any other Hong Sang-Soo film, is a void of calming beauty. Characters usually speak in languish, placid, soft-spoken tones until someone, somewhere drops in a truth bomb over dinner and some sake. There is a consistent dysfunctionality between the poet and his two sons. Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo), who is the elder brother is unable to tell his dad, who obviously loves his daughter in law, that he is no more married to her. He is also edgy and jealous about the fact his younger brother, who is an ambivalent film director (A clear reference to Sang-Soo himself), has had more success in life than him. A clever difference in their stature is shown by the cigarettes they smoke.
With the two narrative strands that quietly develop through the film, Sang-Soo wishes to both bring a contrast and a redundant similarity in them. Like a poem, his film doesn’t dive into metaphors and analogues but it does rhyme with the constant despair and unfulfillment that life offers. The poet is most definitely estranged from his sons. Even though he presents them with soft toys (A funny gesture when put in a Sang-Soo narrative) there’s this void that he simply can’t fill. Similarly, it’s been a while since Sanghee has broken up with the married man but her wounds (both metaphorically and literally – the burn on her hand confirms this) are still hurting her way to recovery.
In comparison to Sang-Soo’s films from last year – prominently Claire’s Camera & The Day After (which was also shot in Black & White), Hotel By The River has a three-act structure that doesn’t rely much on his trademark style of looping and fast-forwarding time to break the narrative constraints. Also, with this film, Sang-Soo tried to delve a lot deeper into the philosophies that his films presents. Which is why it manages to pierce through with its endearing charm that the director has repelled from for a long time.
The film is about the unseen damages that life leaves us with. The third act of the film is reminiscent of the salvaging truth about unsatisfied life & death in Subhasish Bhutaini’s Hotel Salvation. However, with Sang-Soo’s ‘hangout’ style the film becomes more charming than being life-changing. The emotional impact, on the other hand, is stilted but clear. Which makes me wonder how Hong Sang-Soo manages to make the same film over and over and yet leave me wanting for more? I guess, that’s how emotions work – If it does – it does! If it doesn’t – It doesn’t!