Hong Sang-soo continues to go from strength to strength as a filmmaker, with his latest offering, Hotel by the River, landing as one of his strongest achievements to date. It sees him testing the limits of his style and thematic proclivities in ways that still continually surprise. His camerawork, for instance, is more urgent and involved here to match the emotional volatility of the story, which focuses on an aging poet (Gi Ju-bong) reuniting with his estranged sons (Kwon hae-hyo and Yoo Jun-sang) after a messy separation from their mother. Rather than letting the camera stand still and observing gradations in the action through his trademark zooms, Hong seems to have the camera floating in his hands, the edges of the frame perceptibly moving and shaking as the characters begin sorting through their complicated feelings after their self-imposed interregnum. It’s as though Hong is trying to defrost this tale, situated as it is in a deserted hotel in the middle of winter, the cinematography beautifully blanched of all colour and given heightened monochromatic contrasts (which, if I’m being honest, looks better than Roma). Every character here is trapped in a personal cold spell, seeking the warmth of understanding, forgiveness and companionship to drive away the numbness of their mistakes. Hong, however, can only offer the template. As he is wont to do, the characters must confront their crises separately. Whether they spill their hearts out on soju or sit through conversations tight-lipped, their fates arise from the foibles and traits they choose to indulge.
And the characters’ autonomy here is very apparent. There are no surreal sleights-of-hand that dominated films like The Day After and On the Beach at Night Alone (or, at the very least, there is nothing that is immediately perceptible). Though the characters frequently lose each other in ways that border on preposterous (which is a Hong specialty), they also have several opportunities to speak their minds, and what they do and don’t say gives us more than enough information to know where they all stand. Unable or unwilling to see what is before them, they seek the solace of this hotel by the river in the hopes that the spectrality of their existence will be dissipated, not knowing that their stay is only the beginning of a long process of reconsolidation that will require a great amount of personal strength to achieve. As in some of his other features, Hong’s female characters seem to have a leg up in this case, including his current muse/lover Kim Min-hee as a woman nursing a burned hand after escaping a toxic relationship, who is consoled by her close friend (Song Seon-mi). Though less integral to the plot, the two women express a clarity of mind and an openness in their dialogue that seems to elude the main character, and their presence acts as a counterbalance to the troubled minds of the two sons. The interplay between them all and the lessons they learn or seek to impart are threaded into a tremendous framework of presence and perspicuity from the great master of South Korean cinema. There’s no reason to miss it.