The oft-repeated joke about Hong Sang-soo is that he makes the same movie over and over again, but at this stage in his career there is a necessary, if often overlooked asterisk: though the start- and end-points may vary slightly from viewer to viewer, he has carved out distinguishable periods. If periodizing the South Korean director is a manageable task, it’s ultimately a limiting one as well, a way to make a sometimes overwhelming oeuvre more digestible. Hong’s genius becomes most apparent when—as is the case with Yasujiro Ozu, another director who visibly honed and refined his style from film to film—one begins to look at the deviations, foreshadowings, and throwbacks within a particular period. Ozu’s pre-war sound films fascinatingly oscillate between polemical criticisms and more modernist depictions of Japan on the verge of mass societal uprootings, but maintained a commitment to a particular stylistic approach; Hong, comparatively, has focused on social embarrassment and escapism. Often he relies on formal conceits that permit straightforward thematic interpretations. The structure of Tale of Cinema, for example, was a self-serving illustration of the way movies and life conflate; Oki’s Movie could repeat its credits because it was about numerous students making a film; even the relatively recent Hill of Freedom, a film about the difficulty to communicate, was justified in hermeneutic terms for obfuscating its timeline.
If one wants to locate the beginning of Hong's current period, one might look back a half-dozen films, to 2015's Right Now, Wrong Then. As Dan Sallitt observed after Hotel by the River’s Toronto festival screening, that film marked a shift in that a formal conceit became a necessary component of a moralistic declaration and kicked off a string of (mostly) more serious films. To his observations one might add that it constituted a teasing of the audience. Hong began to play with expectations, winking to an audience that knew what to expect, teasing or otherwise deliberately withholding familiarity in the name of surprise—as was particularly visible with his three (count ‘em!!) films from 2017. The relative straightforwardness of On The Beach At Night Alone was interrupted by some of Hong’s most surreal gambits, while the playful and light Claire’s Camera seems to stop short of meeting expectations. The self-flagellation and self-awareness of The Day After should have long put the jokes about Hong's repetitiveness to rest. This new period, then, is marked by comparatively dramatic shifts from film to film and diminishing returns for those seeking to use previous films as a crutch. If time itself has not yet retired the “same movie every year” joke, surely Hong’s latest will.
Conspicuous from Hotel by the River’s opening is that it is shot with a handheld camera. In the very first scene, the slightly unstable movement of handheld work and low-angle shots immediately stand out to all Hong loyalists as something new. It’s the first and most jarring departure from Hong’s previous films, but not the only one. Later, the speech of the protagonist, the aging poet Ko Young-hwan (Ki Joo-bong), is met with either imaginings or flashbacks (or perhaps even flash-forwards) of his walks through the snow outside the eponymous setting. Once upon a time, Hong might have jolted the audience with the reveal of a character waking up, walking out of a movie theater, or perhaps even with another set of credits, but this time, departures from the here-and-now seem to exist as a purely poetic insert carefully guarded against interpretation. On a narrative level, Hotel by the River is concerned with familial relationships rather than romantic ones. It takes place in a single day in which Young-hwan meets with his children, the mostly collected, if visibly concerned film director Byung-hoo (Yoo Joon-sang), and the more brash, recently divorced Kyung-hoo (Kwon Hae-hyo). The only scene of drinking soju, yelling, and accusing is between a father and his son. Doubling meanwhile relocates, as it did in Yourself and Yours and The Day After, into the narrative. In the former, viewers were held in a perpetual state of uncertainty and the latter broke its promise of straightforwardness with a surprise reveal after the halfway point. Parallel to the men in Hotel by the River are observations of a woman played by Hong staple Kim Min-hee and a friend on-hand to comfort her following a tough breakup. But Hong's latest is more honest than either of the aforementioned films. It is never unclear where the characters are in relation to one another, and their intersections are telegraphed for the viewer, save for one admittedly bizarre gag in which one of the women steals a glove from the sons’ car, believing it to belong to someone else.
But if Hotel is more narratively direct and less formally playful, it also tends to keep its ideas below the surface, bubbling up neither in dialogue nor formal gestures. Indeed, the film is primarily defined by what is withheld: Young-hwan won’t satisfactorily state why he wanted to see his children; Kyung-soo refuses to tell his father about his recent divorce; Young-hwan can say nothing when told that his ex-wife and mother of his children views him as the worst human being she has ever met. Gaps proliferate in more concrete terms too, as when the sons constantly lose track of the father in what may or may not be innocent miscommunication, or when Ko refuses to let his sons into his hotel room for unknown reasons. In both instances, what intially looks like an exchange elongated to the point of absurdity might be more nefariously motivated.
At first glance, then, Hotel by the River is dominated by a languid, even sweet tone. Conversations among cordial, if lonely, family members are far less prone to revealing embarrassment that previous Hong films highlight, and even the obligatory scene of a man awkwardly telling women they are beautiful is less consequential and devious than usual. There are no affairs or betrayals to speak of. This is not, however, a film about people who cannot communicate for practical reasons, like Hill of Freedom is, nor is it really interested in studying the behavior of broken, fragile men. Hotel by the River is undoubtedly a quiet film, but only appears gentle because its characters, equal parts depraved and deprived, lack the honesty or emotional freedom to avert, even acknowledge, tragedy. Beneath the surface, it is no less scathing a portrait of male narcissism and fragility than any other. If all this sounds a little too pat or too distilled, there’s no need to worry. Mere moments after all the cards on the table, the film ends with a confounding final shot. This is a Hong Sang-soo film, after all. Could it ever have been so simple?