A film that crackles with that enigmatic, ineffable energy that makes cinema so exciting.
After a few years of crafting films the way that Monet composed paintings—a series of quick impressions of the same scene made with slight but important variations—Sang-soo Hong has diverged from his recent formula with Hotel by the River. It is a welcome break from what was fast becoming a tired routine. In contrast to some of his recent works, this is a film that crackles with that enigmatic, ineffable energy that makes cinema so exciting.
Hong has become widely regarded over the past few years for his prolific output of well-made, interesting films as well as his tireless work on the international film festival circuit. But a common criticism leveled against the South Korean auteur, including by this very reviewer barely a year ago, is that his work consists merely of small derivations on the same topic. Using largely the same set of actors, Hong has typically dramatized an older filmmaker (or other artist) falling in love with a young actress/artist, usually with complications (such as one or both of them being married) tossed in for spice. Ordinarily, the films are set in peripheral Korean villages, away from the noise of Seoul.
The opening scenes of Hotel by the River suggest that Hong will again follow his usual template. The co-protagonists are, respectively, an aged poet long divorced from his wife and a newly-single younger woman, who is also a poet, played by Hong regular Min-hee Kim. The two meet and the older male poet is clearly taken by the younger woman, as well as her friend, another young woman. The setting also fits: a small hotel in a sleepy riverside tourist town in the dead of winter. So here we go again: poets in love, unabashed by their age difference and whatever relationship status either is dragging with them.
Thankfully, Hong swerves. Hotel by the River is not a love story between two poets far from the lights and traffic of Seoul. Instead, it tells two dovetailing stories, one for each of the two co-protagonists. The older male poet is joined at the hotel by his two adult sons, with whom it seems he has barely remained in contact. They are catching up with old stories, news and the sort of deep questions that such resurrected relationships often conjure. On the other hand, the young female poet drifts through scenes with her friend. They often, usually accidentally, follow the other poet and his two sons through the village, but they remain apart. When the film ends, everyone is parting in their own direction, no longer conjoined by coincidence.
Hotel by the River is shot in black and white. This is an appropriate choice, as the film’s key theme of the unmoored wandering associated with modernity is deliberately suggestive of Antonioni’s never-to-be-rivalled Alienation trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse), a series of films that also featured beautiful actors portraying artists trying to escape the confines of their daily lives in the national capital. But Hotel by the River owes an even bigger cinematic debt to the pre-color works of Bergman, as Hong repeatedly references a number of his films, particularly the God trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence (which is coincidentally contemporaneous with Antonioni’s Alienation trilogy).
The black and white cinematography of Hotel by the River, along with its simple plot (only five credited actors) and specific setting powerfully evoke beloved earlier films, generating that singular buzz that is particular to the movies. Each new scene feels both familiar and yet completely original and every line of dialogue sounds like one from a different film, but is not. The viewer gets to experience the film as simultaneously new and exciting but also tried and true, both lived-in and not-yet-experienced. Some people call the films that produce such a feeling “cinematic”; others see it as magic. Whatever it is, it is certainly special and Hong has it here in Hotel by the River.