'Hotel by the River' ('Gangbyun Hotel'): Film Review | Locarno 2018

Familiar Hong.

Prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo premiered his 22nd feature in competition at the Locarno Film Festival.

A middle-aged poet summons his two grown sons to a waterside inn when he feels life might soon be over for him in the wistful black-and-white feature Hotel by the River (Gangbyun Hotel). Even if you took away the fact that the story is set in South Korea and is in Korean, it wouldn’t be too hard to recognize the auteurist fingerprints of Hong Sang-soo — from the dialogue, which is by turns witty, self-referential, poetic and repetitive, to restaurant scenes involving heavy drinking, to the way the camera and mise-en-scene frequently opt for a kind of uncluttered simplicity that allows the work’s various ruminations to take center stage. 

This is the filmmaker’s first return to the Locarno competition since he won the Golden Leopard in 2015 for what should be considered his magnum opus, Right Now, Wrong ThenHowever, he’s hardly taken any time off since then, having since premiered two films in Cannes, two in Berlin and one in San Sebastian. Hotel by the River is another addition to his quickly ballooning oeuvre that will please Hongophiles at festivals such as NYFF, where it is part of the main slate, while doing nothing to widen his mostly fest-based fanbase. 

Young-wan (Ki Joo-bong) is a poet of some notoriety who has checked into a hotel on the river Han for free because the owner likes his work. It’s the middle of winter and not many people seem to be around, though another room is occupied by Sang-hee (Kim Min-hee, the director’s current muse), who has just broken up with her lover, has fled to the hotel and is dealing with first-degree burns on her left hand. 

Both Young-wan and Sang-hee have summoned people to their modest temporary digs. The poet has asked his two adults son to drop by: Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo), who doesn’t dare tell his father he has divorced his (unseen) wife because his old man likes her a lot, and his younger brother, Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang), an art house director of some renown who confesses he’s not interested in women because they scare him. Sang-hee has asked her friend Yeon-ju (Song Seon-mi) to come and visit her, and the female guest is in for a strange surprise when she recognizes the car that the brothers arrived in, which was involved in an accident that also involved her. 

The two strands initially develop separately, though there are thematic contrasts and connections, as usual in a Hong film. Sang-hee asks her friend to come up to her room, for example, while Young-wan doesn’t want his sons to come upstairs, insisting they meet in the hotel bar even though his sons have brought coffee. Small differences such as these are telling, of course, as they illustrate that the two women are close — they even end up snuggling and snoozing on the same bed — while underlining how the men are semi-estranged from one another as Young-wan doesn’t want his sons in his private space, even though they clearly still crave their father’s affection. 

The three male characters are the ones that are developed the most, as is often the case with Hong, and there’s a moment of quiet devastation when it becomes clear that Young-wan, though in good health, has the impression that he’ll die soon and thought it was the proper thing to see his children one last time — as opposed to any actual paternal desire to see his apparently not-so-loved ones. The performance of Ki is appropriately stoic, while Kwon and Yu impress in roles that suggest both how different they are as siblings and how they find themselves in the same boat with their father as he's waiting to cross the Styx.

The female strand, though well acted, is less fleshed out, with some dialogue dedicated to commenting on the men — “He’s hardly a real auteur,” they giggle about poor Byung-soo, for example — rather than exploring their own problems and relationship. The story about the car accident also feels more like a way to try and bind these otherwise not related characters closer together rather than an interesting narrative development in itself — not that those are very frequent in Hong’s films — and, indeed, there is not much of a payoff for this particular subplot. In the end, one has to wonder how much Hotel by the River really needed two strands to begin with, as they now unspool mostly in parallel with the two yarns intersecting only fleetingly and infrequently. That said, the sorrowful situations are frequently laced with chuckles, as when Young-wan suddenly feels the need to give his offspring a parting gift but there isn't much available, so he settles on two stuffed animals for his adult sons.

Cinematographer Kim Hyung-koo again works in crisp black-and-white after Hong’s The Day After (Cannes competition 2017) and Grass (Berlinale Forum 2018), and his work here contrasts the generic furnishings of the hotel with the beauty of the riverside location just outside, especially after a bout of heavy snowfall. This helps further establish and underline the generally melancholic mood of the piece, which is finally a portrait of two souls coming to a reckoning — one with encroaching death, and the other, in a less developed story, with life after a relationship. 

Production company: Jeonwonsa
Cast: Ki Joo-bong, Kim Min-hee, Song Seon-mi, Kwon Hae-hyo, Yu Jun-sang, Park Ran
Writer-director: Hong Sang-soo
Director of photography: Kim Hyung-koo
Editor: Son Yeon-ji
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Finecut

In Korean
96 minutes