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AFI Fest Review: ‘Hotel by the River’ is a colorful masterwork depicting the family bond

Written by: Adriana Gomez-Weston, CC2K Staff Writer

In modern times, black and white films are sparse. In a society that is driven by color, sometimes human interaction is lost among loud imagery. Recent films such as Cold War and Roma focus on emotion and intimacy, a huge departure of other films that have been released. In a cinematic world devoid of color, audiences are allowed to take in the experiences of the characters, and focus on their shared experiences. Hotel by the River is another intimate film that places emphasis on the relationships it depicts and cultivates. Hong Sang-soo’s latest feature, Hotel by the River (Gangbyun Hotel) is nothing short of fantastic. Shot completely in black and white, Hotel by the River is a colorful depiction of the bond between family, especially fathers and sons.

Director and writer Hong Sang-soo is no stranger to the international festival circuit. His newest film, Hotel By the River debuted at the Locarno International Film Festival. At the festival, Hotel by the River was nominated for the prestigious Golden Leopard Award, Junior Jury Award, and took home the Best Actor Award for Ki Joo-bong’s performance. Prior to AFI Fest, the film had made stops at the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and the Stockholm International Film Festival, just to name a few.

Over the course of his decades-long career, Hong Sang-soo has established himself as an auteur. The majority of his films are critically-acclaimed, appealing to audiences around the world. Known as one of South Korea’s most prolific directors, the majority of Hong Sang-soo’s films are heavily improvised, drawing on visual simplicity, but dealing with the complexities of the human condition. Some of Hong Sang-soo’s past works include films such as On the Beach at Night Alone; Right Now, Wrong When, Night and Day, and Our Sunhi.

The South Korean drama unites famous poet Young-wan (Ki Joo-bong) with his two sons Kyung-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byung-soo (Yu Jun-sang), when he summons them to a cozy hotel beside the Han River. Sensing that he is about to pass on, Young-wan desires to tie up some loose ends. After he realizes he has left a void in his sons’ lives, he looks to make amends. The younger brother Byung-soo is a successful director who’s afraid of women, while Kyung-soo, the elder brother tries to conceal the fact that he is divorced. Since there’s a significant age difference between the two brothers, both fail to see eye to eye on their father’s unusual behavior.

Meanwhile, another guest, Sanghee (Kim Min-hee) comes to the hotel in order to recover from a rough breakup. While she attempts to remedy her emotional wounds, she enlists the help of her best friend Yeonju (Song Seonmi). Yeonju comes to Sanghee’s side, keeping her company as she grieves. Both women command the attention of Young-wan, who charms them with his poetry and wit. While Young-wan migrates between entertaining the beautiful women, and calming his restless sons, he takes peace in his time at the hotel, knowing that his days are numbered. While he does that, the sons and pair of women use the hotel as an escape from their problems in the outside world.

Director and writer Hong Sang-soo sets a sleepy atmosphere, fueled by conversations between the characters. The cast is small and contained, allowing for few outside distractions. Other characters are mentioned, such as Kyung-soo’s wife and the hotel owner, but they’re never shown. Over the course 90 minutes, the audience is allowed to get to know these characters, and grow a fondness and sympathy towards each player. Each actor’s performance is strong, but Ki Joo-bong’s Young-wan is funny, sweet, and heartbreaking. His performance in the titular role livens the film, adding the extra layer of despair and wistfulness. Despite Young-wan’s many imperfections and mishaps, he still appears to be likable as a man trying to reconnect with the humans that surround him.

Hotel by the River is a masterwork in fostering relationships between its characters. It is a testament to the beauty of the bond between not only parents and their children, but the bond between friends. The film serves as a reminder to keep your loved one’s closer because you never know what is going to happen. It’s better not to let things go left unsaid, you never know if you’ll lose the chance to say those things.