By now we have all noted that Hong Sang-soo has been getting a bit more serious lately. One does not necessarily register less humor in the films on a moment-by-moment basis; nor do all his recent films reflect this trend. But something is definitely up with him. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) is the first time I felt the structure of Hong’s films shifting away from surrealist humor and toward affirmation: unexplained repetition of situation and story has always been typical of Hong, but I recall no other instance in his career in which a second repetition seems to be a moral improvement that carries the filmmaker’s endorsement. On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) uses repetition more in Hong’s usual fashion, but its story is less keyed to the surrealism of the repetition and more to a progression toward an emotional climax that Hong allows to stand unmolested by postmodern subversion. And now, Hotel by the River, the Locarno premiere that, this week at least, is Hong’s most recent film, dials down the small humorous disjunctions that have heretofore been the fabric of all his work, and puts its money on a series of meditative monologues and a fatal prediction that hangs over the enterprise.
Hotel cuts between two groupings of people at a hotel on the Han River in the wintertime. The first group comprises the aging, successful poet Ko Young-hwan (Ki Joo-bong, in his Hong debut) and his two sons Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang). Young-hwan has summoned his children because of his inexplicable conviction that he is about to die; neither father nor sons seem comfortable enough with each other to know how to profit from the meeting, and in any case a series of misunderstandings result in the sons spending much of the film trying to find the father in and around the hotel. The second group is a younger woman named Sang-hee (Kim Min-hee), in mourning over a recent breakup with a married man, and her friend Yong-ju (Song Seon-mi), trying to support her friend despite a recent heartbreak of her own. The women spend much of the film taking naps together, arms around each other, awakening occasionally for conversation. The two groups first interact when Young-hwan sees the women walking in the snow and takes the opportunity to praise their beauty at embarrassing length—a scene that Hong fans can probably imagine accurately without seeing it. That night everyone winds up at the same restaurant, where the women and men converse separately for a while on big subjects before Young-hwan joins the women and recites poetry for them.
The story gives Hong the opportunity to create surreal parallels between the two groupings, with dialogue and formal structures passing inexplicably from one group to the other. Hong takes that opportunity, of course, but somehow the parallels and repetitions don’t seem to be where the movie is located in his mind, and mostly the film progresses in a slow but linear manner. There’s also the usual quota of humor based on eccentric behavior: for instance, the father’s obstinate refusal to let his sons meet him in his room, drawn out for maximum absurdity; or Yong-ju’s insistence that the sons’ car is in fact the same car that she previously owned and wrecked. The most intriguing and exploitable element in the film is the frequency with which the characters fall asleep and awaken. Hong gets at least one droll running joke out of the napping, with all the characters exclaiming how much snow fell during the brief time they were asleep—in all likelihood Hong’s way of covering up a continuity problem caused by a heavy snowfall during the shoot. Still, when one imagines how Hong might normally have spiralled crazy discontinuities out of the waking-sleeping cycle (cf. Hill of Freedom ), he seems unusually restrained here. As is often the case, Hong tries a few tricks he’s never essayed before: showing unrelated footage of Young-hwan wandering the streets while the characters converse or monologue in the hotel; and, more surprisingly, showing Yong-ju approaching the sons’ car and then, much later in the film, continuing the shot to show Yong-ju meaninglessly stealing a pair of gloves from its front seat.
After searching through the film’s formal ploys and finding nothing particularly transformative, one begins to take its mostly solemn conversations and interactions at face value, even though these conversations and interactions don’t seem so different from the ones in earlier films that were undercut by absurd juxtapositions. The film seemed to go a little slack and sentimental for me at times, but perhaps this is a first-viewing effect that results from Hong not meeting my expectations. What I’m really wondering is whether a more straight-ahead, serious Hong will prove as compelling as the deadpan trickster we’ve come to know. In any case, Hong is so clearly the greatest filmmaker of his time that I’m in no hurry to come to conclusions about whatever new moves he chooses to make.