“Hotel by the River” is the latest movie from the South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, which means that the viewer can bring to the experience a number of assumptions. The first is that it will probably not be this year’s only new offering written and directed by Hong, a restless and productive talent. (“Grass,” which preceded this one at international film festivals in 2018, will be released in theaters next month.)
Another likelihood is that it will focus on a sorry specimen of cultured Korean masculinity, a writer or filmmaker whose innumerable deficiencies — selfishness, narcissism, neediness, chronic unfaithfulness — will be laid humiliatingly bare, usually in the company of a few women and with the help of several bottles of soju. Gatherings in bars and cafes will alternate with lovely glimpses of natural scenery, observed by a camera that occasionally shakes off its impassivity and goes in for a quizzical zoom.
Whether Hong is being repetitive or conducting an ingenious career-length study of repetition has been and will continue to be picked apart, at the risk of producing a similar monotony among his critics. One of the pleasurable surprises of “Hotel by the River,” then, is that it partakes of familiar elements to push them in a subtle and absorbing new direction. Even within a narrative and thematic framework that seems to hew close to that of its predecessors, it achieves an emotional directness that feels less like variation than a departure.
A subtle departure, to be sure. Gorgeously shot (by Kim Hyung-ku) in a crystalline black-and-white palette that accentuates the mood of snowy desolation, the movie follows an aging poet named Young-hwan (Ki Joo-bong), a guest at a small hotel overlooking the Han River. An early phone conversation, in which he tries to arrange a coffee meeting with some visitors, wryly hints at the comical instances of miscommunication and passive-aggression to come.
Those visitors turn out to be his two grown sons, Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang), neither of whom he’s seen in a while. After Young-hwan declares that he expects to die soon enough (though there is nothing to indicate why), years’ worth of estrangement come surging back, much of it stemming from Young-hwan’s long-ago abandonment of his sons and their still-angry mother. The bitterness courses in more than one direction. Kyung-soo, smarting from a recent divorce, seems to resent the success of his younger brother, a recently established independent filmmaker.
Before he meets with his sons, Young-hwan has an encounter with two young women, Sang-hee (Kim Min-hee) and her best friend, Yeon-ju (Song Seon-mi), who are also staying at the hotel. Sang-hee is getting over a difficult break-up (and recovering from a mysterious burn on her hand), and she and Yeon-ju have retreated for some extended self-care. At times the camera simply watches the two of them sleeping side by side, conjuring a warm, restive silence that may elicit your own sigh of satisfaction, or possibly envy.
The juxtaposition of these two parties — three men, most of them awful, dealing with unhealed family wounds, and two women seeking their own refuge from male awfulness — presents Hong and his faithful admirers with some fascinating structural possibilities. Will these strangers have an awkward gathering that subsequently replays itself under slightly different circumstances, in the manner of “Right Now, Wrong Then”? Or will the movie suddenly lurch forward to another time and place without explanation, à la “On the Beach at Night Alone”? (The superb Kim Min-hee, Hong’s frequent collaborator of late, stars in both.)
But “Hotel by the River” has something simpler, which is to say possibly more complex, in mind. The characters’ infrequent encounters are infused with some of Hong’s tried-and-true conversational motifs: Reflexive politeness, intense flattery and the natural lure of celebrity all play their part. But the filmmaker doesn’t seem particularly interested in building up any comic tension or dramatic fireworks between the two groups. If anything, he would rather study them in isolation, as if to point out the curious similarities in their situations and underscore the loneliness and incompatibility of the sexes.
Or perhaps he’s just telling a raggedy, random story, one that sometimes confirms and sometimes mocks whatever larger thematic baggage we might try to attach to it. And that story, punctuated by odd, poetic cutaways, can be intensely affecting — never more so than when Hong fixes his camera on Young-hwan and his two sons, and allows the undercurrents of generational estrangement and sibling rivalry to assert themselves. It’s an explosive, soul-baring display from a filmmaker who hasn’t lost — and indeed, may be rediscovering — his capacity for surprise.
‘Hotel by the River’
Korean dialogue with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills