South Korean film “Hotel by the River”, the latest work from Hong Sang-soo, relatively feels more melancholic and reflective than Hong’s previous works. While there are several amusing moments of low-key humor as you can expect from his film, the overall tone of the movie is quite serious on the whole, and this may be the beginning of another small but significant change in Hong’s steady and consistent filmmaking career.
The story of the movie mainly revolves around Yeong-hwan (Ki Joo-bong), an old poet who has recently stayed at a rural hotel located by the Han River for two weeks. Because the owner of the hotel, who is incidentally never shown in the film, is an admirer of his poems, Yeong-hwan is allowed to stay there for free without any interference, but, as shown from the very first scene of the movie, he has been troubled by something inside him, and that is why he asked his two sons to come and then meet him at the hotel.
While waiting for his two sons at a cafe located inside the hotel, Yeong-hwan spots two young ladies walking outside the hotel. They are Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee) and her friend Yeon-joo (Song Sun-mi), and, as shown to us later, they come to the hotel for having their own quiet private time together. Having recently broken up with some married guy, Ah-reum looks a bit depressed, but she feels mostly fine, and she is often cheered up by her friend’s supportive presence as well as a few nice things she sees from the windows of the hotel.
When Yeong-hwan subsequently approaches to Ah-reum and Yeon-joo, he repeatedly compliments them for their beauty, and that took me back to those similar moments in many of Hong’s previous films. His main female characters are usually plain beautiful, so his main male characters cannot help but say again and again to these ladies how beautiful they are, and that has surely been a sort of running gag to Hong’s audiences.
The next comic moment in the film comes from a small happening between Yeong-hwan and his two sons Kyeong-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byeong-soo (Yoo Joon-sang). When Kyeong-soo and Byeong-soo arrive at the hotel, they are perplexed as they cannot find their father in the hotel cafe, while not knowing that their father is actually at a certain spot hidden from their viewpoint. After a brief moment of confusion, they eventually come to find their father, and their father later confides to them that he has been disturbed by the possibility of his death these days. Although he feels all right at present, it often seems to him that he may pass away sooner or later, and that is why he wants to have some meaningful time with his two sons.
While Kyeong-soo and Byeong-soo have no problem with what their father wants from them, their old family issues are gradually brought out as they and Yeong-hwan talk more and more. Many years ago, Yeong-hwan walked away from his family just because of a young woman, and now he feels more regretful about not being a good father and husband to his family. At one point, he clumsily tries to get closer to his sons as talking about how he named his sons respectively, and Kyeong-soo and Byeong-soo feel a little embarrassed as trying to handle the situation as courteously as they can.
When the evening comes, they all go to a nearby restaurant for having a dinner together, and the mood becomes a little more loosened among them as they drink some rice wine. I once heard that Hong usually shoots the drinking scenes of his films after making his performers really inebriated, but the performers in the film do not drink much on the whole, so I came to worry less about them while watching this scene.
In the meantime, Ah-reum and Yeon-joo happen to be at the same restaurant, and they are also having a dinner at a spot not so far from the table occupied by Yeong-hwan and his two sons. Especially after recognizing that Byeong-soo is a well-known filmmaker, Ah-reum and Yeon-joo become more curious about what is going on between Yeong-hwan and his two sons, but they decide not to approach to Yeong-hwan and his two sons, who eventually come to leave the restaurant after deciding that they ate and drank enough.
However, after wandering alone for a while, Yeong-hwan goes back to the restaurant, and that leads to a literally poetic moment inspired from somewhere inside his drunken mind. I must confess that I am not that good at assessing poems, but I can at least tell you that what is recited by Yeong-hwan feels simple but profound, and Ki Joo-bong, who was funny and poignant in “Merry Christmas Mr. Mo” (2016), brings touching sincerity to this wonderful moment. In case of the other cast members of the film, Kim Min-hee and Song Sun-mi did a good job of imbuing their characters’ private scenes with tender sensitivity, and Kwon Hae-hyo and Yoo Joon-sang are also solid in their respective roles.
Although I do not think it is one of Hong’s best works, “Hotel by the River” is worthwhile to watch mainly thanks to its dependable cast members as well as the stark beauty of the black-and-white cinematography by Kim Hyung-ku, and I am glad to see Hong bouncing back from the minor disappointment in “Claire’s Camera” (2017) and “Grass” (2018). I guess he still has more interesting things to tell, and I certainly hope that he will keep amusing us as before.