HOTEL BY THE RIVER (Gangbyeon Hotel) B+
South Korea (96 mi) 2018 d: Hong Sang-soo
One of the more prolific directors working today, Hong Sang-soo has built a career making intimate chamber dramas, where his earlier films contained unfiltered yet graphic sex scenes of over-inebriated men in bed with the wrong partners, often regretting their behavior afterwards, while the real object of their affections remains elusively out of the picture. Bursting onto the scene with an amazing coherency to his dialogue which is especially self-critical of the boorish behavior of men, often featuring a professor or film director as a stand-in for Hong, drinking heavily in restaurant table scenes with his students and admirers, where his drama is driven by a confessional nature in his works, becoming amazingly transparent, feeling autobiographical in the highly personalized nature of the conversations. As his career progressed, there was less emphasis on sex and more in the precise means of expressing himself, as writing his own dialogue has always held the key to understanding his films, absorbed in somber reflections, where the quality of his actors has elevated over time, becoming exquisite chamber dramas that question the nature of the artist in a changing world, with an emphasis on shifting relationships that don’t always end well, where the critical focus on betrayal, abandonment, loneliness, remorse, and wildly self-serving ideals lead to a complex portrait of middle-class life in South Korea, revealed to be a modernized, cosmopolitan world that inherits a capacity for change, yet characters are stuck in time, stubbornly refusing to grasp the obvious. More than any other working director, Hong’s films are a scathing portrait of male narcissism, leaving damaged characters lingering in a state of paralysis, often self-imposed, yet they are on the cusp of bridging the future, but something inevitably holds them back. Hong dissects this modern dilemma with acute observation, usually writing his scripts on the morning of the shoot, showing a capacity for brevity and precision, creating a Chekhovian universe that is unparalleled in modern cinema. With nearly 25 features under his belt, churning out at least one per year, his films are a reservoir of personal detail and inspiration, where you can count on brilliantly choreographed table sequences with plenty of food and drink, leading to abrupt and seemingly spontaneous drunken outbursts that might seem obnoxious or cruelly offensive, yet they have a way of clearing the air, as Hong brings a brutally honest dynamic to all his works, featuring characters that aren’t particularly likeable, as they’re willing to tell others exactly what they think, whether they want to hear it or not. This can be startling and humorous in the same breath, but always makes for compelling theater, as this director has such a clever style of conveying his messages, often resorting to repetitive looks of the same events, but viewed differently, keeping viewers off guard, where well-mannered sophistication delves into the crude realities of our day, creating poetic films with astonishing reach.
In an unusual twist, the opening credits are spoken aloud, revealing the precise dates when the movie was shot, between January 29 and February 14 of 2018. His sixth film with actress Kim Min-hee (his romantic partner) that began with 2016 Top Ten List #8 Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da), this is the first where she is a secondary character, not the primary focus, yet her presence is unmistakable, always representing something near and dear to the director. Instead the film opens on the craggy face of Ko Young-hwan (Ki Joo-bong, working with Hong for the first time, winner of Best Actor at the Locarno Film Festival), an aging poet staying at a riverside hotel, with Kim Hyung-ku’s black and white camera asserting itself in this wintry landscape, one of the few Hong films shot in winter, where the views of snow on the ground reaching clear across the river are simply breathtaking, capturing a winter wonderland of unsurpassed beauty, with nature making its presence felt, even having the final say by the end of the picture. This has a different feel than earlier pictures, perhaps due to the more open use of handheld cameras, but much of it must be due to the affable yet gruff nature of Ko, who stands out as a different kind of authority figure, equally blind and damaged, yet decisively different, as he seems comfortable in his own skin, able to overlook his shortcomings and not dwell upon them, displaying a much more positive attitude than most Hong characters. Receiving a call from a perspective visitor, he easily avoids revealing his room number, despite the persistence of the caller, preferring to meet in the café on the ground floor of the hotel. When he arrives for coffee, he looks fully dressed for the outdoors, sitting in front of a floor-to-ceiling window with an amazing view, where he remains in focus, yet the viewer’s eye moves out the window to the distant shoreline, like a ghost world barely recognizable in the dim light, or silhouettes engulfed in a fog. As he drifts off in thought, two others are sitting at a similar table with an identical view, two brothers, Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang), apparently waiting for their father. This missed connection is intriguing, as there are no other visible guests at the hotel which is distinctly notable for just how empty it is. Curiously, there is one other hotel guest on the same floor as Ko but down the hall, Sang-hee (Kim Min-hee), seen wrapping her hand with bandages from an apparent burn injury. Inner thoughts are revealed for both hotel guests, no one else, allowing an expanded introspection for each character, connecting them together in some mysterious fashion. Her invited guest meets her in her hotel room, Yeon-ju (Song Seon-mi), but not before noticing the car driven by the two brothers, recognizing something familiar about it. While commiserating over a painful recent break-up, Yeon-ju is offering her moral support and is there in a comforting role of a friend, yet the two spend most of the afternoon dozing in the room. When they take a brief walk outside, Hang-see is surprised by the amount of snowfall, “How could so much come down so quickly?” Ko has apparently been stood up by his friend, so he takes a walk outside, introducing himself to the two young ladies, finding their youthful beauty not only intoxicating but refreshing, awkwardly repeating this observation several times, where they eventually make the connection that he’s a published poet. This little interchange repeats a theme from earlier films where older men always express how beautiful Kim Min-hee is, a personal obsession of this director that becomes sickening to endure in On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja) (2017), considering just how much constant attention is paid to her, feeling more like an uncontrolled addiction.
Eying his two sons through the window, they quickly reconnect, though in the interim we’ve learned the older brother still teases Byung-soo about his name, as it’s so close to the word “Buffoon,” claiming that’s not accidental, a fact that still bothers him, surprised this practice is continuing into adulthood, though now the younger sibling is a budding filmmaker, viewed as a hot commodity. Their father acknowledges he’s been staying at the hotel for free, as the owner is one of his admirers who made the offer, so he’s been there a few weeks, but will have to leave shortly, as he’s grown tired of the man, claiming he constantly repeats himself (a common criticism of Hong himself!). Because Byung-soo is still single and has a reluctant view of getting too close to women, believing he has to approach them cautiously due to previous damage inflicted, that makes his father laugh, finding it a ridiculous approach, as taking a chance on love is all that matters in life, even if the love doesn’t survive. Apparently estranged from these two boys, as he abandoned them and their mother at an early age, he’s invited them here to reveal a strange premonition he’s been having, as he senses his impending death, though medical experts give him a clean bill of health. Nonetheless, he wanted to share this feeling and see both of them. Taken aback by this strange admission, they’re not close enough to their father to really understand what this means, as they barely know him. Continually stuck on their phones, they barely know each other and have little to say, estranged by the passing of time. Byung-soo still feels like a “Mama’s boy,” as he’s taken on his mother’s characteristics, slender and overly sensitive, while the burly Kyung-soo more closely resembles his father, not only in size but in disposition, having much more confidence in himself, though he refuses to acknowledge to his father that his marriage has fallen apart, refusing to be associated with failure. Ko finds his younger son’s cautious viewpoint towards women overly pathetic, believing he’ll never amount to much, as life is too short to waste it all on fear and apprehension, and that love is too precious to ignore, acknowledging he and their mother married too young, before they came of age, eventually having little in common. His artistic temperament requires greater scrutiny than she desired, as his candid remarks and outspoken nature became too much. Despite being dumped by his latest girlfriend, he basks in the reveries of the love they shared when they had it, regretting nothing, finding that among the loftiest ambitions a man can aspire to (an apparent rationalization for leaving his wife and children for his current affair with Kim Min-hee), attempting to pass on some of that knowledge to his two sons, but it escapes them. Their awkward response to their father’s candid admissions is more than noticeable, becoming humorous, with both taking notes at one point, as if bowled over by his paternal wisdom. Realizing he hadn’t brought them anything, no special gifts, he actually excuses himself to buy some stuffed animals, as if they’re still a couple of 8-year olds in his eyes.
Drifting back and forth between the two hotel guests, the film has a kind of somnambulistic tone, with cheesy music interrupting occasionally, usually putting a punctuation point on the end of a scene. As it turns out, Yeon-ju is certain the car out front is the same car she had a recent accident in, yet it’s been expertly repaired, with no signs of damage. Nonetheless, out of impulse, she steals a pair of gloves out of the front seat, as if getting back for the harm it caused her. After brief a nap, with both women snuggled together on the same bed, Sang-hee is less judgmental about the married man’s abusive behavior towards her, taking on a more forgiving tone, where she doesn’t appear to be someone that holds a grudge, as she’s ready to move on with her life. The closeness of the two women stands in sharp contrast to the emotional aloofness of the men, with Ko quickly realizing he hasn’t much to say to either son, creating a theater of awkward moments. Taking a short walk to a nearby restaurant, Yeon-ju notices the same identifiable car out front, sensing this is more than mere coincidence, eager to discover who the owners are. The father and his two sons are already well into their meal, each drinking heavily, with confessions coming fast and loose, louder and less controlled than earlier, simply blurting out remarks, with no regard whatsoever that they’re in a public place, as the two women seated nearby overhear everything, but never interfere, as it’s more of a public spectacle than anything else, where one family is literally putting on a show. As if instrinsically aware of the dirty laundry being aired, the two women conclude, “By nature, men are just incapable of grasping love.” When the sons start describing in no uncertain terms exactly how their mother actually feels about her ex-husband, they hold nothing back, pulling out every adjective in the book to describe him as the living depiction of evil personified, “a total monster without a single redeeming human virtue,” growing meticulously accurate in their carefully chosen words, becoming a surrealistic exposé on black humor, as it’s a raucously hilarious scene, with the boys feverishly piling it on, each outdoing the other, yet it’s all so dead serious, never once cracking a smile, using deadpan delivery to heighten the effects. Clearly this is the centerpiece of the film, filled with the exact kind of personal attacks this director has had to endure publicly in the South Korean headlines, where his affair has been the subject of gossip columns and endless scandal, receiving much greater press coverage for the scandal than for his directorial prowess, with both forced to flee the country to get away from it all. The autobiographical nature of this scene will forever endure, like something out of the Maurice Pialat realm, as it’s brilliantly performed, perfectly choreographed, given a documentary feel of unhinged honesty. Of course, while this is happening, all Yeon-ju can think of is getting an autograph from that budding director, with Sang-hee finding that thought contemptible, to at least wait until after they’re done with their meal. This is actually one of the better constructed scenes in any Hong film, certainly in years, where it stands out in tone from anything else seen earlier, as this was a notably quiet film with barely any drama to speak of. With the release of all the fireworks, a markedly different atmosphere prevails, with the father cleverly tricking his sons into believing he’d already left, but it’s all a ruse to ditch them so he can share a few drinks with the young ladies, reading them a poem he’d written on the spot while they ply him with even more alcohol. This game of hide and seek, using smartphone texts to create a diversion, works all too well, much like how they missed each other earlier in the hotel café, showing how easily we avoid and miss each other, finding it hard to connect even when trying, told with a tinge of melancholy and sadness, where the rapid changes of the modern world only leave us more isolated and alone, feeling ever more disconnected and adrift.