Even for a career with no discernable lack of winter pictures (cf. The Day He Arrives, The Day After), Hotel by the River stands out as Hong Sang-soo’s coldest film to date. Set in a curiously unfrequented hotel by the Han River, in the dead of winter, the film follows two guests: Younghwan (Ki Joobong), an aging poet who is visited by his two estranged sons (Kwon Haehyo and Yoo Joonsang); and a young woman (Kim Minhee), who’s recovering from an unspecified romantic crisis, and is accompanied in her convalescence by a close female friend (Song Seonmi). Aside from being shot entirely with handheld cameras — a first for Hong — Hotel by the River is also notable in that there’s no structural gamesmanship at play, although a missed connection when the poet’s sons first arrive at the hotel does feint at a possible parallel timeline. Or maybe there is a structural fillip, one built on the fact that so many of the characters doze and practically somnambulate through the runtime. There’s a discombobulating, almost spectral quality to numerous scenes (the poet’s awkward introduction to the two women, a drunken dinner with his sons), which gives Hotel by the River a sense of unreality and detachment, as if it were bearing witness to either past events or imagined futures. Equally significant, though, is Hong’s uninhibited embrace of fatalism, which is the most evident it’s been since perhaps his feature debut, 1996’s The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, and its shocking ending. Death is ever-present, and the aging poet at the center here moves as if he’s already been taken by it.
Maybe there is a structural fillip here, one built on the fact that so many of the characters doze and practically somnambulate through the runtime.
Since Hong’s working method continues to be tied to the emotional valence of his daily life, Hotel by the River’s explicit reckoning with death is especially unsettling. But it’s in keeping with the film’s concerns with both artistic and familial legacy, the evidence of a life well-lived — or not, in the case of Younghwan. “I’d better not mess up,” the poet says early on. But as the remainder of the film suggests, there’s nothing left for him to do. (The absence of his daughter, whom he briefly wonders about during the film’s opening shot, casts a long shadow over the proceedings.) His attempts at connecting with his sons are almost comically ineffectual, and ring with that familiar, painful desire for a love that can no longer be. It’s fitting, then, that the loveliest moment of this stark, bare film — occasioned by a hastily written poem — occurs between strangers. To borrow from the title of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, perhaps love is, in fact, colder than death.