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Memorial Day Weekend, Part II

May 27th, 2007 (11:25 pm)

© 2007 D. Gordon

Several years ago, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, erstwhile member of Japanese pop phenom SMAP, was watching a Korean film on television. He was so impressed by the film that he decided he wanted to speak to and work with the lead actor, Han Suk-kyu1; and in order to do that he decided to learn Korean. One result of that effort was the movie The Hotel Venus, a film about despair and dead ends and hope and the value of life.

What goes on in The Hotel Venus is a little complicated to explain. A group of society's dropouts inhabit a dilapidated residential hotel in a dilapidated City (nameless, although the production was shot in Vladivostok). Think Kurosawa's Donzoko (The Lower Depths). Foreigners all, they communicate only in their own language2 and have stopped expecting much of... well, anything. It's not Hotel California - the characters are free to leave and in fact travel daily outside of the hotel - but the residents themselves are trapped in the place by their own pasts.

The characters themselves are a varied lot. Somewhere in the transition to their current lives they've adopted new names, nondescript for the most part; a real name, with real meaning and expectations, would only lead the owner to disappointment. There's Doctor, a non-practicing alcoholic, and Wife, who uses her body to support them; the two of them spend their days fighting, sometimes violently. Boy is a thug-in-training who's teaching himself how to be tough and hangs a "Hitman" sign on his door, much like an office worker angling to advance his career. Soda is bright and bubbly, a salesgirl at a nearby flower shop, with secrets of her own. Venus the transvestite owns the hotel, and Chonan Kang manages it, moving through each day, doing the laundry service and making meals, not expecting much. And nothing much is what happens, until the day that Guy comes in the door, the young silent girl Sai in tow.

The more I think about it, the more I think this is a great setup. However, the execution has some flaws.

The purpose of the movie is Art with a capital A, and it almost screams it: it's shot in very flat colors, almost black and white, with occasional color to emphasis particular objects. Chonan Kang speaks throughout the movie, but communicates with the silent Sai by tap dancing. There's a poignant song in the background, and the dreary landscape of the City when the characters travel outside the hotel. The Art is there, and it's obvious in places; however, it dodges the pretension bullet for pretty much the entire movie.

It being Art, this movie has a Message, and that's where I run into real problems. As the movie progresses and we learn what brought each character to the hotel, the pieces of that Message come together until there's a whole by the end. Like the Art, the Message is almost but not quite overdone; unlike the Art, however, it uses too many bendy plot twists and mini-crises to get there. Some of those twists and turns actually serve the story, whether or not they're visible from a mile away; others (especially one in particular) come out of nowhere and land at our feet, evoking a feeling but not integrating with much else. Thus getting from point A to point B is a little scrambled. Maybe it's me; the movie did win an award at the Moscow International Film Festival. But my overall feeling was that I was missing something basic in the story: the real, pure reason why this tale was important. Mayhaps a second viewing would help fill in the blanks, but I couldn't help thinking that this could have been much much more.

Thanks to hwang for the translation of Tsuyoshi Kusanagi's comments from the movie photobook, by way of Koreanfilm.org.

1 - Han Suk-Kyu is the star of the hilarious Forbidden Quest, but I don't know what movie Tsuyoshi Kusanagi was watching.

2 - The language is actually Korean; the film is a Japanese production, with a mix of Japanese and Korean actors. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, whose name translates to Chonan Kang in Korean, plays the lead character, also named Chonan Kang.