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With two films in this year’s New York Film Festival and five in just the last two years, Hong Sang-soo is at risk of being known as much for his prolific pace as for his movies themselves. Some critics feel his pace betrays a lack of thought and rigor, while others think it suggests an artist at the height of his powers. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but Sang-soo’s abundant output of films that all feature similar themes and motifs allow his films to be considered very differently from most American filmmakers. Instead of working for several years on a film and then trying to change gears with different material, Sang-soo is able to produce variations on a theme, more akin to the working style of a painter or musician. Like a painter or musician, it probably won’t hurt to skip some of the lesser efforts, but it makes it all the more noticeable when Sang-soo introduces a different element.
“Hotel by the River” features many of Sang-soo’s familiar ingredients – a melancholic protagonist, copious drinking, chance encounters – yet the persistent shadow of death and darkness gives more depth to the small encounters on display. The story orbits around two poles, the first of which is Young-wan (Ki Joo-bong), a prominent poet who has come to the resort town to take stock of his life before the death he believes is imminent, despite no doctor’s diagnosis. In a glimpse of the film’s split between heavier themes of life and death and...
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