LKFF 2018: Hotel By the River Review
Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day) is a prolific director. With 27 directing credits since his directorial debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well in 1996, his productivity has always been very high, sometimes leading to making three films in the same year. Despite spawning important films such as Woman is the Future of Man, Tale of Cinema or Right Now, Wrong Then, this productivity suggests an inherent degree of preparation to prevent a film to veer into empty improvisational territory. And as a result, what can sometimes lead to great cinematic moments can also turn scenes into a rather dull experience and overall be detrimental to the quality of a film, something which Hotel by the River illustrates perfectly.
A famous poet (Ki Joo-Bong, The Spy Gone North) is staying in a riverside hotel, for free, and summons his two semi-estranged adult sons (Kwon Hae-hyo, The Day After, and Joon-Sang Yoo, Fists of Legend), who he rarely sees, to discuss his death. He thinks he’ll die soon, though there’s no evidence to support it. Meanwhile Sanghee (Kim Min-hee, The Handmaiden) checks in for a few days, on the rebound from a failed relationship; she and her friend Yeonju (Song Seon-mi, On the Beach at Night Alone) are both fans of the poet’s writing and are thrilled to find him there.
In line with the main character wandering in the hotel, the tone of Hotel by the River is purposely poetic. However, like poetry while it can sometimes create beautiful moments, it can also fall flat, giving the impression of watching a forced exercise in improvisation out of which only transpires a feeling of tedium. This is particularly the case during most of the scenes between Sanghee and Yeonju during which the audience’s interest will invariably tend to diminish.
Nonetheless, there are some very beautiful shots in the film and a rather spectacular black and white cinematography by Hong Sang-soo’s regular DoP Kim Hyung-ku (The Host), doing a wonderful job in capturing the immaculate deserted landscape of the Han river in the cold of winter. Yet again, this all feels very familiar; the cold and snowy landscape of the river automatically conjures a feeling of death. Despite trying, and occasionally managing, to be poetic, Hotel by the River does not strike as subtly as it would perhaps like to. Yes, Hong Sang-soo is thinking about death and, yes, he does it in a rather bland way.
Apart for the cinematography, another appealing aspect of film revolves around its cast of Hong Sang-soo’s regular collaborators led by Ki Joo-bong (who won a well-deserved Best Actor prize at the 2018 Locarno Film Festival) as the poet who remains unnamed throughout the film. He brings a lunar detachment to the character, accompanied by a genuine sensibility which immediately invites the empathy of the audience, an important aspect of the journey Hong Sang-soo encourages. The rest of the cast also does a good job managing to enhance scenes, and retain the audience’s attention, which regularly threatens to melt like snow in the sun.
Hotel by the River is a poetic film which like the written word won’t appeal to everybody and while beautiful looking often meanders into tedium.