Hotel by the River (Hong Sangsoo, 2018)

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Sean Gilman: You and I both saw Hotel by the River not long after it premiered late last summer at the Locarno Film Festival. But while in recent years we’ve found it difficult to stop talking and writing about Hong Sangsoo, as far as I know, neither of us has had much to say about this one. I mean, you once wrote a review of just the trailer for Yourself and Yours, I was crazy enough to watch, and write about, all of Hong’s movies in chronological order last year, and we’ve talked about him in every single episode of our podcast for the past two years. So what is it about Hotel by the River that we’ve gone six months without having anything to say about it, and why is it so hard, even now after rewatching it, for us to discuss it?

On its surface, it’s of a piece with Hong’s most recent films. It stars Kim Minhee and, like The Day After and Grass, it’s shot in an icy black and white. One of his winter films, it is also, like Grass, a movie haunted by death. An aged poet has been living in a hotel for the past two weeks. His sons come to visit him. Next door are a pair of women (sisters we assume but I don’t think it’s confirmed). The whole action takes place over about 24 hours. Everybody naps, a lot. All the Hong/Kim films, but one, have flaunted their narrative experiments: the short story construction of Grass with Kim as observer/writer; the temporal confusion of Claire’s Camera; the dreams and allusion to Hong and Kim’s own life in On the Beach at Night Alone; the duplications of Yourself and Yours; the mirror structure of Right Now, Wrong Then. The one that plays things basically straight is The Day After, which we also, at least initially, were somewhat underwhelmed by. That film grew on me in retrospect and with rewatching, as I found a precision in the filmmaking and earnestness in the performances that is often missing in Hong’s work.

But revisiting Hotel by the River, I remain as nonplussed as I was the first time. More than anything else, the movie is a mood, of loneliness, of regret, of resignation. It’s maybe the least funny movie he’s ever made. And I guess that’s probably it: it just doesn’t feel like my idea of a Hong Sangsoo movie. Despite the familiar character types and situations, conversations about love and failure, over-drinking and social awkwardness, it seems like something else entirely. This is the persistent danger of fandom, or auteurism, which is not the same thing but is in the same ballpark: our reaction to the film is intricately entwined with what we have come to believe about the filmmaker. And so when Hong Sangsoo makes a movie that doesn’t fit our idea of a Hong Sangsoo movie, we don’t know what to do with it.

Years from now, Hotel by the River could mark a step in an evolution of Hong’s work that we’ve come to recognize and understand. He’s had many different periods along the way, with certain films sticking out as transition points (Virgin Stripped Bare; Woman on the Beach; Right Now, Wrong Then), the effects of which are occasionally not felt until another two or three films down the line—Night and Day and Like You Know It All feel more like pre-Woman on the Beach films, with Woman pointing the way instead to the Jung Yumi movies (Oki’s MovieIn Another CountryOur Sunhi). Perhaps Hotel will improve when we’re able to see it in the broad context of the next phase in Hong’s career.

Grass and Hotel seem of a piece in that they present a more sober, austere Hong. One increasingly less concerned with the agony of finding love than with the dread of what comes after life. I had a theory about Grass that the characters in it were in a kind of purgatory, trapped in an in-between state after death. I’m tempted to read some kind of similar twist into the overtly simple narrative of Hotel, that Kim and her sister are (literally) angels, weeping over the folly of men; or that they are figments of the old man’s poetic imagination; or that he dreams them while they dream him; or something like that. I don’t know I can support this kind of wild speculation though. At least not as much as I can the time travel theory of Claire’s Camera. It just doesn’t seem complicated. It’s a cold film and I’m having trouble breaking through all the ice.

Evan Morgan: I’m glad you brought up the difficulty of writing about this film; I’m in the same boat. Words usually flow like so much soju when it comes to Hong, but this time around, my enthusiasms seem exhausted. You’ve hit on a number of possible explanations: the air of guilt and reproach that hangs over the film, which, though not alien to Hong’s world (the otherwise utopian Grass evinces an unnerving fixation on suicide, for example), refuses to abate, like a fog that won’t lift; the deadened comic sensibility, a key contributor to the oppressive tone; and the relative lack of narrative play. At the moment, it’s the last point that’s bugging me the most: I wonder if the fatigue I’m feeling is in fact attributable to a certain enervation on Hong’s part, an exhaustion with his current working method. For the first time since he abandoned pre-planned scripts and started writing his movies on the fly, I suspect that Hong conceived the final moments first and then worked backwards to lay the groundwork to get us there. That would account for the sorely missed spontaneity—so often a source of humor—and for the doomed tone. Do any other Hong films telegraph their final purpose like this does? Or, to put a finer point on it: Having a character state “I feel like I’m going to die” and then having the plot deliver on the premonition is beneath Hong, or so I thought.

But it’s little perverse to start here, at the ending, so let me backtrack a bit. Not long after the opening shot, which introduces Hotel’s handled camera and its correspondingly destabilized world, Younghwan, the poet at the film’s center, muses to himself that he’s “done something foolish again.” The nature of this foolish act is, I think, key to unlocking Hotel by the River’s meaning, if not its cold heart. Younghwan has made the mistake of allowing his two adult sons—played, pointedly, by Hong regulars Kwon Haehyo and Yu Junsang—to intrude on his (presumably) solitary existence, and their presence is a haunting as literal as your “angels of death” theory is figurative; these are not Nobody’s Sons. The old poet clearly deserves some blame for his offspring’s unfulfilled lives, and though Hong keeps Younghwan’s specific fatherly crimes cloaked in ambiguity, his ex-wife’s assessment of his character (“A total monster without any redeeming human value”) ought to give us some clues about life in his household. And so the hotel, which under other circumstances might promise a reunion and a reconstitution of the family unit—it’s named, not incidentally, after the German word for “home”—acts instead as an anteroom for one man’s sins, a kind of purgatory, to borrow your apt description. Though I might disagree with you in one respect: perhaps it’s not the dread of what comes after but the terror of living with what we’ve wrought in this life that is Hong’s recent obsession.

That would make Hotel less of an aberration in Hong’s career, I think, given his cinema’s myriad reckonings with male failure, though the focus on familial bonds, rather than romantic relationships, robs the film of a certain generative ambivalence. A son’s bond with his father is, it seems to me, necessarily more solidified than that same man’s relationship to a prospective lover. Hence the two women: they hang around the edge of the movie as if to promise the malleability, even the mystery, that we’ve come to expect from Hong’s cinema, but they’re so far removed from the drama that their effect on it can only be countenanced in metaphorical terms, as you imply. The ease with which one could boot Kim Minhee and Song Seonmi from Hotel and be left with more or less the same movie makes me dubious about their diegetic utility. Still, their presence provides the film with its single best image: when Hong drapes them in charcoal overcoats and frames them against a snowy landscape, it’s a genuinely painterly moment, all that frosty negative space suggesting untouched silk parchment, the dark figures of the women seeming to stand in for the spare strokes of an ink wash master—not a brush wasted. The severe beauty that Hong is seeking finds an expression there, if nowhere else.

Sean: It’s important that you highlight that image, it’s by far the best thing about the movie. In fact, I wonder if that idea, an old man overwhelmed by the beauty of two women clad in black surrounded by white, was Hong’s starting point for the film, rather than the ending. It’s certainly more hopeful than the ending, and more in keeping with Hong heroes of the past, men struck stupid by what the perceive as an all-powerful beauty, one that redefines, or at least makes irrelevant, all traditional ideas of fidelity. Repeatedly Hong’s men conflate beauty and morality, usually to comic effect. The poet does the same, I think, but Hong never really undercuts that belief. I guess it depends on how you read the poem he eventually writes, which he claims was inspired by the two women. I don’t think it particularly resembles them, but that too is nothing new for Hong–the idea of art failing to match the reality that inspired it. But like a lot of ideas that seem to float around the movie, I don’t think any of this ever really goes anywhere.

That’s probably what I find most frustrating about it: the decided lack of forward movement. As you say, the two women literally do nothing for the entire film–they sleep, they talk around whatever issue Kim is having (a breakup probably and a burn of some kind), they observe the men, they sleep again. Kim in Grass was in the observer role as well, but actively so, such that you could reasonably imagine her not just watching but creating all the little dramas around her. And those dramas progress, in the nature of short stories, little slices of life that, when combined together in the whole of the film, create myriad rhymes and resonances, all united by a mysterious central figure. There are a lot of rhymes in Hotel, between Kim and the poet (we can hear each of their thoughts, their stories begin with them alone in their rooms), and contrasts (the differences in their reaction to their guests bringing coffee), but they don’t really amount to anything. Why are these characters linked? What do they have in common aside from the fact that they’re characters in a Hong Sangsoo movie?

Writing all this out, I’m almost certain I’m taking the wrong approach to this film. I do think it’s Hong stretching himself out, trying something new. A movie unified not so much by cause and effect, or by the collision of infinite possible worlds, or even one driven by the basest cruelties of men and women in love, but simply, as I said earlier, by mood. It’s a movie about the feeling of being old, of being out of touch with youth, even the younger people who should, theoretically, be closest to you (your children). The feeling you get when you’re old and alone and miserable and you see two beautiful young people, glimpses of warmth and heat and vitality, and know that your world is now a much colder place.

Evan: I like the way you emphasize Younghwan’s response to the women, his genuine appreciation of their beauty in aesthetic rather than sexual terms. Is the poet exempt from the boorishness that typically afflicts Hong’s men? His rapture reads to me as honest, almost achingly so, rather than predatory or pathetic. And if that’s the case, does Hotel introduce the possibility of a new kind of happiness in Hong’s world, the contemplative repose of old age? Despite the pervasive loneliness and the untended wounds of family history, I do think the movie gestures in this direction, for a time anyways.

But really, there’s no escaping the predestined end. Hong doubles down on the entrapped atmosphere that we both sensed in Grass, nowhere more so than in Younghwan’s last poem, a bizarre tale that describes a secret society that raises a young gas station attendant in seclusion from the rest of the world. Although we both seem to prefer the moments where Hotel yearns for warmth and communion, I’ll admit to being sort of fascinated by this sequence, the premise of which is supremely Mabusian. Lang is not an obvious touchstone for Hong, but he is for me, and in some ways this scene has prompted me to measure Hong’s cruelties, which I find increasingly dull, against Lang’s, which are consistently exhilarating. The difference, I think, is where each locates pleasure: for Lang, the geometry of death, its axiomatic certainty, is itself a wondrous thing to behold. It will crush us, no doubt, but its movements produce a thrilling whir. Hong, on the other hand, seems not to enjoy the narrative and visual stratagems necessary to bring his work into confrontation with death. That is his prerogative, I suppose, but it means that whatever pleasure there is to be had in Hotel exists only in its detours from the terminal path, and not on it. That’s why so much of the film feels like a slog and the reason, I think, that Hong hesitates when depicting Younghwan’s demise, why he holds on the empty hallway outside the bedroom instead of bolting inside with the sons. The image is among the ugliest in his career and inarguably the most evasive. If Hotel is, finally, a trap, it’s one that springs only half-heartedly. Which is to say: all the pain, none of the thrill.