Saturday, June 22, 2024

Softening the Blow: Hotel by the River (Gangbyeon Hotel / 강변 호텔 2018)

Kim Min-hee in Hotel by the River / 강변 호텔 (2018).

Hotel cafés, like airport restaurants and long-haul trains, are a magical place. People from all walks of life gather there for a few brief moments before setting off again to who knows where. These places allow for serendipitous encounters that can sometimes be life-altering, and that often reveal how people’s lives rhyme. That’s the vibe going into writer-director Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River (Gangbyeon Hotel / 강변 호텔 2018), set entirely at and near a small hotel by the Han River over a day and change in the dead of winter, when everything is covered in snow. And since this is Hong, we viewers are also meeting the characters serendipitously, with no introduction or exposition.

The film’s two plotlines intertwine in the very first scene, when renowned poet Young-hwan (Ki Joo-bong) looks out his second-floor window to see a young woman with a bandaged hand wandering outside. But he doesn’t have time to ponder this, as his invited guests are arriving soon at the hotel’s café. Yet despite having invited them, he seems nervous, constantly wondering if he’s made a mistake.

The other plotline is, naturally, about the young woman, Sang-hee (Kim Min-hee), here to decompress after the end of her affair with a married man, much like Kim’s character in On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). She’s soon joined by her friend Yeon-joo (Song Seon-mi), a happily married woman, and they spend the day lying in bed together drinking and talking, and – yes – wandering around in the snow. Despite having been seriously wronged by her ex in some vague way related to the first-degree burn on her hand, Sang-hee now empathizes with and even pities him, to Yeon-joo’s consternation.

Young-hwan’s guests turn out to be his estranged adult sons, Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byung-soo (Yoo Joon-sang), whom he abandoned along with their mother many years ago for another woman, who later left him for another man. The brothers’ bickering seems to stem from this childhood sense of resentment, aggravated by their mother’s unabated verbal abuse-in-absentia of Young-hwan. As for why Young-hwan asks to meet them after so many years? Despite claiming to be in perfect health, he has a premonition of his impending death.

So that’s the plot, and it only exists so that the characters can hold forth on gender dynamics in the second act. But before that, we get to luxuriate in the muted winter beauty of the river scenery, accentuated by the crisp black-and-white digital images (cinematography by Kim Hyung-ku). Kyung-soo compares it to the Tumen River, even though he’s only seen the Tumen in documentaries. It adds to the beauty of the two women, according to Young-hwan, who greets them in the snow specifically to compliment them, and discovers that Yeon-joo is a fan. (She’s also the one who recognizes Byung-soo as an up-and-coming arthouse director.) And the winter cold makes the scenes of the women lying in bed wearing thick sweaters feel all the more cozy.

The serene atmosphere takes whatever explosive traumas the two parallel plotlines reveal and renders them nostalgic, removed, abstracted (editing by Son Yeon-ji). It also flattens the screwball comedy when the brothers, time and again, have to locate their father, who has a tendency to hide himself. And it’s subtly undermined by Hong’s handheld camera, used even where we would expect it to be locked down.

Act two shifts things to a nearby restaurant, and that’s when the serendipity gets downright uncanny. Yeon-joo previously clocks a Range Rover in the hotel parking lot as one that she used to own (and once crashed). Now, the women see it outside this restaurant and, walking in, find Young-hwan and sons. It feels like when, after making a bus transfer, you find yourself staring at the same stranger you were staring at on the first bus.

The women eat and eavesdrop as the conversation of the men, seated one table over, reveals the backstory I summarized in paragraph four. Kyung-soo hides his divorce from his father, and the only reason his incredibly obvious body language doesn’t betray him is that his father doesn’t speak it. When Byung-soo confesses that he mistrusts women because of his parents’ history, Young-hwan laughs in his face. Yeon-joo, meanwhile, opines that she can’t stand childish men like those at the next table, which thankfully her husband is not. These sentiments may read on paper as canned, but the realism of the performances, preserved by the short preparation time Hong gives his actors, really sells it. The parallel discussions bode ill for the ongoing Korean gender war.

How does Hong wrap up this 96-minute film with a parallel structure and no powerful catharsis? By entering Apichatpong territory, with a comic twist, a visualization of recited poetry (which, anticipating In Water [2023], is shot entirely out of focus), and an ending that would seem obvious, if not for the fact that the cozy first act has already lulled us into complacency.

CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on X/Twitter @cj_sheu

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