By Diana Cheng
AAP Film & Arts Writer
Prolific Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo’s latest feature, “Hotel by the River”, juxtaposes two seemingly incompatible concepts with his cinematic aesthetics: death and beauty.
What will you do if you have an inkling that death is close at hand? An aging poet, Younghwan (Ki Joobong), spends his last days in a quiet hotel by the Han River. Sensing that his demise is imminent, he calls his two estranged sons (Kwon Haehyo and Yu Junsang) to meet him at the hotel, maybe seeing them one last time, but perhaps even more importantly, to have them come together once again and stay side by side as brothers.
The father-and-sons’ meeting is awkward; after all, Younghwan left them years ago. For the first time in their life, Younghwan explains to them the meaning of their names, give them gifts as if they are children, and take cell phone photos with them, apparently lots to catch up on. “Side by side” is the meaning of the name of the younger brother, a father’s final urging, and points to the importance of having a firm stand on the streets while communing with heaven.
More natural and aesthetically pleasing is Younghwan’s encounter with two women (Kim Minhee and Song Seonmi) at the hotel. The cinematography is particularly distinguished in this black-and-white film, with the camera stealthily follows the two women outside into the snow-covered ground, both wrapped in long, black coats, ethereal in the vast expanse of whiteness. Younghwan sees them through a window and is taken aback by the beauty of the scene. He steps outside to chat with them. Their conversation is spontaneous, casual and genuine.
One of the women is suffering from a doomed love affair, and the other has come to the hotel to give her support and comfort. Their intimacy exudes compassion and empathy. For the unknowing poet, he sees the beauty of the two against the backdrop of nature. In pain, beauty can still speak.
These two women are obvious foils for the two brothers. We see their connection in a deep and supportive friendship, while the men, all three of them actually, are like islands, alienated albeit related by blood. Hong’s camera speaks the truth in portraying them in a naturalistic, even mundane style, yet never short of aesthetics.
“Hotel by the River” is Hong’s twenty-third feature in twenty-two years. He has distinguished himself as an auteur of eccentric viewpoints, sometimes repeating the events in the latter part of his film to elicit an alternative ending. This latest film is linear and offers a traditional style in its storytelling, yet the serene camera capturing the two women against the expanse of freshly fallen snow is perhaps the most poetic in his recent works. The subject matter points to a maturity in the auteur that could well place him in a soul-searching stage in life.
“Hotel by the River” is playing at the Quad Cinema in New York City until March 5. It will open in Los Angeles on March 8, followed by showings in other selective cities.