“It’s a bit ambivalent — he’s not a real auteur,” says a young woman, in airily indifferent fashion, about the work of a semi-famous filmmaker, having improbably recognized him in the foyer of a sleepy waterside hotel. Her shrugging dismissal raises the biggest laugh in “Hotel by the River,” though it’s hardly the first time that wily, prolific Korean writer-director Hong Sangsoo has written a joke at his own expense into one of his low-key comedies of human error and awkwardness: Knowing, ego-deflating auteur portrayals are, ironically enough, an essential part of Hong’s own auteur stamp.
Even by his oeuvre’s laid-back standards, however, this appealing slice of monochrome melancholy is more ambivalent than most. Observing what may be the last days of a disheveled poet calmly convinced he’s about to die, it’s chiefly an exercise in existential waiting, as unhurried as it is uncertain, with life measured out in coffee spoons and soju shots alike. As such, there’s little structural trickery to speak of in “Hotel by the River,” making it one of the simpler recent works by a director frequently fascinated by temporal stretching and looping. The usual run of prestigious festival stops will follow the film’s Locarno competition premiere, though whether the film’s less characteristic qualities will make any difference to international sales — or whether loyal distributors will be emboldened by its accessibility — remains to be seen. Either way, it seems unlikely that this will be many viewers’ first Hong.
Awash with sighs, pauses and gazes between the rueful dialogue, Hong’s loose screenplay alternates between two shaggy concurrent strands, which intersect only in passing, polite ways. In the first, well-regarded poet Younghwan (Ki Joobong) invites his estranged adult sons Kyungsoo (Kwon Haehyo) and Byungsoo (Yu Junsang) to meet him at the hotel where he believes he will soon die, despite having no medical symptoms or prognosis to that effect. Having summoned them, however, he swiftly realizes he has precious little to say, as unspoken hostilities — stemming from his failed marriage to their still-furious mother — seep into the silent space between the three mutually wary men. Moreover, it seems there’s little love lost between Kyungsoo and Byungsoo: The latter has recently enjoyed success as a filmmaker, to the evident resentment of his older, schlubbier brother, who’s loath to tell his father about his recent marital woes.
Mercifully removed from this jjigae of masculine insecurity is fellow hotel guest Sanghee (Hong’s regular muse Kim Minhee), a delicate-natured young woman who has checked in to recuperate from a painful breakup — and, in a physical manifestation of her interior hurt, a nasty burn on her hand. Draped in brisk midwinter snow, it’s a suitably mellow, unpeopled venue for emotional self-pity and healing, though once solitude wears out its welcome, she calls on her best friend Yeonju (Song Seonmi) to keep her company. Together, the women talk, walk and nap through the heartache — and briefly attract the idle, flirtatious attentions of Younghwan, to little avail. “By nature, men are just incapable of grasping love,” they wearily agree, and every time the film’s focus drifts back to the stiff, stifled male family reunion unfolding in the same building, it’s hard not to see their point.
As a forlorn kind of hangout movie, then, “Hotel by the Sea” proceeds at a pleasing shuffle, spiked with bittersweet humor and even a gentle, surprising hint of sentimentality. The harsher familial exchanges on screen are tempered by the more regretful, affectionate tenor of Younghwan’s internal voiceover. Sanghee’s story acts as a subtle symbolic counterpoint to his, suggesting the unseen emotional damage to poet has wrought on the women in his life, but it’s less illuminating on its own terms: Hong has given his offscreen partner richer roles than this one, though Kim still plays it with achy grace and vulnerability.
Notwithstanding the odd reckless zoom — another essential Hong trademark — this ranks among his more formally serene recent works, tastefully muted in all departments from Son Yeonji’s wandering editing to Kim Hyungkoo’s seasonally silvery, frost-nibbled lensing. It’s the director’s third consecutive black-and-white effort, though the palette has a softer, sunnier effect here than it did on the strident relationship turmoil of last year’s “The Day After” or this year’s clipped, stripped “Grass.” Just as his characters repeat routines and mistakes with varying outcomes, Hong cheekily continues to make nearly the same film over and over again, inviting viewers to look closer to see the fine-lined tonal distinctions between them. An ambivalent auteur he may be, but not without intent.