This quiet hotel on the banks of the Han River ought to be a perfect spot for a secret assignation, but its guests are working through the bitter aftermaths of their affairs instead. It has been a long process for aging poet Ko Younghwan. He might never fully repair his relationships with the grown sons he walked out on decades ago, because he is convinced he will soon die in Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
Ko is weirdly famous for a poet (quick, name a living poet—any living poet), but apparently he is sufficiently respected for the owner of the hotel to offer him a free room. It seems the freeloading Ko has overstayed his welcome, but he really does not expect to be around much longer. Having had premonitions of his imminent death, Ko summoned his semi-estranged sons, Kyung-soo and Byung-soo, but he immediately regretted it. He fears their reunion will be too awkward, even by the low standards of a character in a Hong Sang-soo film.
On the other hand, Ko is quite taken with Sang-hee and her friend Yeon-ju. The former has checked into the hotel to recover from the heartbreak of a recent affair cut short by her married lover, as well as the Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque burn she subsequently suffered on her hand. This relationship clearly echoes that of lead actress Kim Min-hee’s scandalous involvement with Hong himself, as well as the uncomfortably meta affair that collapses around her character in On the Beach at Night Alone. However, in this case, the focus falls on Ko, who was rather ironically dumped by the woman he left his family for, decades ago. Yet, he regrets nothing.
One of the knocks on Hong is the alleged “slightness” of his films, but in Hotel, he is dealing with some serious themes of mortality and redemption. However, some consistencies remain, such as the ultra-neurotic nature of his characters and their capacity to guzzle down alcohol.
As Ko, Ki Joo-bong creates a marvelous humanistic portrait of a flawed man in the twilight of his life. He is simultaneously guilt-ridden and defiant, in a way that is quite compelling. This time around, Kim takes a backseat to Ko, but also largely defers to Song Seon-mi, who really gets most of the film’s laughs as Yeon-ju. The consoling friend ruthlessly roasts the immaturity of the man-children who populate Hong’s world, but she can’t dismissed as anti-male, because her husband is different. In fact, the unseen, unnamed fellow is apparently too healthy to appear in a Hong Sang-soo film.
Obviously, that cannot be said for Kyung-soo and Byung-soo, who are classic Hong archetypes, especially the latter, who is a conspicuously Hong-like uncommercial indie film director. Yet, Yu Jun-sang’s coolly reserved performance is consistently upstaged by Kwon Hae-hyo’s more angsty work as the messily human Kyung-soo, who inherited most of his father’s physical shortcomings and personality hang-ups, but none of his talent.