There aren’t many reasons for a person to stay at a hotel, if it isn’t for travel. Maybe to have an affair, or to escape a home, or to pass by in a dream. In Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel By The River, the reasons are far less concrete, borne out of ill-defined heartbreak, a favour from the owner, or perhaps just a simple interest for the languid, milky view of the Han River through the resort’s misty windows. There are two occupants that Hong follows, with plotlines tangled loosely together: a seasoned, stilted poet, Younghwan (Ki Joobong), who’s divorced and has a cat at home, and a young, disquieted woman, Sanghee (Hong regular Kim Minhee) who keeps thinking of someone else and has burnt her hand. Hong shrouds death, beauty, fame with the same calm, eerie matter-of-factness that prises the poetic from the prosaic. The poet, convinced he’s going to die, does a few things: he arranges to see his two adult sons (played by Kwon Haehyo and Yu Junsang, headlocked in constant, innocuous bicker) one last time. He also takes a funeral portrait, because that’s what has to be done. Hong’s lumbering menial realism (with only a teasing modicum of self-reflexivity) means there’s little accessible poignancy. Instead, the film is dry, frustrating, amusing, numbing, disappointing: a tiny white blip in his voluminous oeuvre.
In the midst of this crisp, freezing winter, washed out in grayscale, and with the occasional subconscious voiceover lingering overhead, Hotel is in gentle, modest form – familial tensions tighten and ease in clumsy, awkward conversations, people very quietly cry, or laugh, or sleep, or eat rice. When Younghwan reads out a poem he’s written for Sanghee and her friend, it’s tedious, and not particularly good. Elsewhere, his sons are drunk. There is nothing too surreal in this film, but if someone were to vanish, there would be little fanfare. In a place that feels a lot like limbo – muddy with the transitory aimlessness symptomatic of a purgatory, or an airport gate, or a waiting room – revelations are abandoned for meditations. In a place with taut, waxy sheets, floral carpets, servile receptionists, and a wine and cheese platter just out of frame – who’d care for intellectual ruminations? Why not just drift? Sanghee remarks: “I don’t want to think.” Younghwan thinks, “This plant is going to dry out.” It’s not a metaphor. The plant is pretty dry.
Hotel By The River will be playing on 13 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing.