Hong Sang-soo can be a very frustrating artist at times for some. He has developed a formula that he has stuck to so well for so long that audiences can pretty much guess several settings and situations off the bat, a quality that you either love or hate in the director’s works. The main thing that differs are the narrative choices he takes. His latest film, and his second of 2018, “Hotel by the River” however takes a simpler, more linear approach to the narrative. The film premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won Best Actor for Gi Ju-bong.

Hotel by the Riveris screening at
Festival des Cinémas d’Asie de Vesoul

On the invitation of the owner, renowned poet Young-hwan has been living at a lovely riverside hotel for the past couple weeks, in the middle of winter. Though he seems hale and hearty,  he seems to be under the impression that he is nearing the end of his mortal life soon and wants to take the opportunity to reconnect with his two estranged sons: the elder Kyung-soo, a family man who has just divorced his wife but hasn’t told his father yet, and the younger Byung-soo, a film director whose last film was well received. In the same hotel, the heart-broken Sang-hee has also recently moved in, trying to get over the pains of her breakup with a married boyfriend and has called her friend Yeon-ju to keep company and help cope better.

“Hotel by the River” finds Hong in an unusually melancholic mood. Impermanence, both of our physical self as well as that of relationships, is questioned and pondered upon. It’s how the two stories deal with it that sets them apart. While Young-hwan and his sons look back at past memories and missed chances with fond affection in trying to make the most of what little time they apparently have to spend with each other, Yeon-ju wants Sang-hee to forget what has gotten her at her current state of mind and live in the present.

Hong Sang-soo’s joy in conversations is almost infectious, long-takes of joyous reconnections for a father and two brothers and two friends just being there for each other interspersed with his trademark zooms here and there. One would almost be forgiven for thinking that this might just be the first time we see a Hong Sang-soo film without a drinking scene and drunk conversations, but he doesn’t disappoint with the final act being set in a restaurant with Soju flowing freely.

In spite of the heavy themes, the film actually takes a very light approach to them, with the father and sons spending their time together joking, drinking and reminiscing, often to humorous effect, and the two female friends taking the opportunity to lay in bed cuddling, talking cinema and discussing wine and cheese. To that effect, the male trio of characters feel a lot better etched out that their female counterparts and feel most impactful. The story with Yeon-ju and the car accident in the past was clearly included as a connecting thread for the two stories, but it is very feeble and doesn’t go anywhere.

Every actor called upon for this film can quite rightly be considered Hong Sang-soo regulars and their chemistry with the director is evident. Kwon Hae-hyo (“The Day After”, “On the Beach at Night Alone”), Yoo Jun-sang (“The Day He Arrives”, “In Another Country”) and Song Seon-mi (“On the Beach at Night Alone”, “The Day He Arrives”) effortlessly provide competent support to the two leads as Kyung-soo, Byung-soo and Yeon-ju respectively. It is also interesting to see Hong letting his current muse and off-screen partner Kim Min-hee take a more backseat role as compared to their other recent collaborations, but that could well be due to the limitations of the script and the character of Sang-hee than anything. Gi Ju-bong’s collaboration with Hong goes all the way back to 2008’s “Night and Day” but it is this film that truly gives the veteran actor the opportunity to shine! Every praise showered on the actor is well deserved. His Young-hwan is as melancholic as he is stoic, not letting any apparent emotional pain he is feeling show on his face.

Continuing Hong’s current obsession with black-and-white, “Hotel by the River” is once again shot in stark monochrome by cinematographer Kim Hyung-ku after “The Day After” and “Grass”, but one wonders if the black and white imagery is able to fully compliment the quite clearly stunning natural beauty of the setting of the film and the aftermath of the heavy snowfall. The theme music is sparingly but effectively used.

“Hotel by the River” does nothing new for the audience who have not warmed up to Hong’s oeuvre of conversations, drinks and relationships. It is not necessarily an ideal entry point for someone who is not familiar with his very distinctive style of cinema either, since his strength lies in his play with the narratives, which is pretty straightforward here. But those who are familiar with and love his body of work cannot help but be swept away by its black-and-white wintery charms.