Hotel By The River (2018) ‘TIFF’ Review – A Delicately Told Family Drama

In his latest creative venture Hotel By The River, renowned Korean director Hong Sang-Soo presents us with a simple and endearing slice-of-life that is stylistically one among his more austere works to date. Primarily set in and around a riverside hotel, it juxtaposes an awkward family meeting between a poet and his sons with that of two women who also happen to be residing there. The minimalist black and white frames are engulfed by an atmosphere of melancholy and quiet desperation that is rather typical across Sang-Soo’s oeuvre of films.

Hotel By The River draws up sensitive portraits of its characters, composed out of a series of seemingly-ordinary plot details.

It begins with the poet Younghwan (Ki Joobong) inside his messy hotel room. He sits on his bed as he broods and looks outside to the snow-covered landscapes out of his window when he suddenly receives a phone call. It is later revealed that the call was from his two sons Kyung-soo (Kwon Haehyo) and Byung-soo (Yu Junsang) who are coming to visit him and for some reason, the poet doesn’t want them coming up to his room. As they meet and engage in conversation, it is gradually revealed that their father (the poet) left them with their mother when they were children. And due to reasons unexplained, Younghwan has begun to feel that his days on earth are nearing their end and therefore, he feels the need to make up to his sons in order to get closure. Hotel By The River

Hotel By The River
Ki Joobong as Younghwan with Kim Minhee as Sanghee and Song Seonmi as Yeonju (Credits: FINECUT)

Meanwhile, in the same hotel, a woman named Sanghee (Kim Minhee) invites her friend Yeonju (Song Seonmi) to accompany her as she tries to heal, both literally and figuratively, from her last relationship which ended with her partner betraying her. Yeonju notices the car she used to drive in the parking lot of the hotel, and it intrigues her. They spend most of their time talking or laying down and sometimes walking through the snow outside, where they meet the poet Younghwan. He profusely compliments them on their beauty and they, in turn, are impressed upon discovering he was the famous poet they have heard about. They soon retreat to themselves, unaware that their paths are about to soon cross again in ways unexpected. Hotel By The River

The calm and placid life in the riverside hotel is reflected by the long takes predominantly used by Sang-Soo. The script is never in a hurry but always content to settle down with the characters and observe them minutely. As a result, tiny character details – like the older brother’s jealousy over his sibling’s success, the two women’s contrasting opinions about celebrities – make their presence felt and contribute towards a more realistic and fully-fledged portrayal of these people. Having said that, there’s a distinct lack of nuance in how the characters of Sanghee and Yeonju are written in comparison to the amount of thought given to the male characters. Hotel By The River

Hotel By The River
Kim Minhee as Sanghee and Song Seonmi as Yeonju (Credits: FINECUT)

The poet Younghwan wants to make sure that he doesn’t leave this world misunderstood, and thus goes to great lengths to explain himself to his sons – starting from how he named them to why he left them and their mother in pursuit of another woman. In the twilight of his life he isn’t bitter despite losing almost everyone, but rather develops a strange kind of frankness about himself. This new outlook manifests oddly at times, like when he keeps complimenting the two women on their beauty, over and over again till it feels almost creepy. It is only much later, in retrospect, that we recognize his attempts to express himself to the fullest and not leave anything unsaid, in light of his newfound premonition of death. Hotel By The River

The camera often makes its presence felt in Hotel By The River and not always in a good way, with sudden quick zooms here and there feeling obtrusive to the film’s otherwise serene, meditative mood. A few directorial choices (like characters thinking out loud and the use of a nearly-episodic narrative structure) robs the film of a certain degree of subtlety that could’ve otherwise really enhanced the experience. As a result, the final direction towards which the film is headed can feel predictable, even if that doesn’t really diminish the potency of the ending that much. Hotel By The River

Hotel By The River
Kim Minhee as Sanghee (Credits: FINECUT)

Sang-Soo always maintains a constant distance from the characters, rarely ever using close-ups, despite Hotel By The River being of a heavily emotional nature. Plot details slowly trickle out, more through conversational dialogue rather than exposition, helping keep the film continually engaging despite its leisurely pace. The young Sanghee, moving on from her breakup and restarting life, is presented in contrast to the aging Younghwan – getting ready to bid farewell, as he ties up loose ends while writing the concluding chapter of his life. And it results in a cathartic and thought-provoking drama that, despite its minor shortcomings, has an endearing yet sobering effect as the credits roll away.

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When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.

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