Monday, November 14, 2011

REVIEW: The Seaside Motel

シーサイドモーテル(The Seaside Motel)

Released: 2010

Kentaro Moriya

Toma Ikuta
Kumiko Aso
Takayuki Yamada
Tetsuji Tamayama
Riko Narumi

Running time:103 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

There are a lot of stories going on behind the doors of The Seaside Motel, a rundown establishment set miles out in the middle of nowhere. It's name makes you think of an idyllic coastal getaway, but in fact it's nowhere near the sea. The closest you get to sun and surf are the identical photos of a couple basking on a sunset beach that hang in every room. The Seaside Motel is the kind of place you stay at out of necessity and never choice, a place to hide, a place to disappear, a dead end place. Describing the setting like this you would think that Kentaro Moriya's film "The Seaside Motel" would be some kind of neo-noir exercise, and if it had been it may have been a better film. As it turned out "The Seaside Motel" is a film that continually pulls its punches and, while delivering some interesting performances, its attempts and goofball comedy mostly falls flat.

Who will you find if you check into The Seaside Motel? People like Kameda (Toma Ikuta), a traveling salesman who finds himself unable to sell his stock of cheap skin cream. In the midst of his self pity Candy (Kumiko Aso), a prostitute knocks on the door of his room. He didn't call her, but soon he finds himself falling in love. It turns out that it was the guest in the upstairs room, a grocery store manager named Ota (Arata Furuta), who called for Candy but he gave the escort service the wrong room number. Now Ota is trapped in his room wearing a blonde wig and a full face of make-up -- a device used by his Pachinko-playing wife to keep him from cheating while she is out gambling. Down the hall there is another ropmantic liaison going wrong. A lonely man named Ishizuka (Tetsuhiro Ikeda) has become obsessed with a ditsy bar hostess named Marine (Mami Yamasaki) and has brought her to The Seaside to have his way with her. The only thing is she refuses to bed Ishizuka in such rundown surroundings. Rounding out these damaged couples are Yosuke (Takayuki Yamada) and Rui (Riko Narumi). Rui thinks she and her beau are off to attend a local festival, but it turns out that Yosuke, a gambling addict, is running out on a series of dents owed to the yakuza. Soon the mobsters are busting down the door of their room and Yosuke is "persuaded" to pay back the money by a torturer named Pepe (Yoichi Nukumizu).

Describing the intersecting bare bones narratives of all these characters brings to the seedy and booze-soaked songscapes of early Tom Waits, the bent and faded snapshots of author Raymond Carver or, in their darker moments, the pulp misadventures of Raymond Chandler. The big problem is that Kentaro Moriya softens these rough edges, or avoids them all together and instead wraps the lives of these down-on-their-luck motel denizens in the bright colours and broad cartoon stylings of so many contemporary Japanese comedies. Easy laughs aren't allowed to simply be easy. Instead we feel that we are being forced to bust a gut by quick, gimmicky editing, almost circus-style set design and costumes and performances that are worthy of a Warner Brothers cartoon. Okay, this may not be entirely fair. Takayuki Yamada, an actor who can seem to take the most banal material and make it sing, shows his usual charisma and supreme comic timing. Also, actor Yoichi Nukumizu give his middle-aged torturer Pepe an added level of menace that perfectly compliments Yamada's performance. These two bright spots aren't enough to make us forgive the bland performances of Tetsuji Tamayama and Tokio Emoto as a pair of yakuza, and the seemingly interchangeable actresses whose job is to strut around and be sexy. Of course these women, all prostitutes, hostesses and adulterers, are never allowed to actually be sexual, nor is the violence on display allowed to chill us even a tiny bit. The perfect example of this is a scene involving a car crash in which we see that there is no stunt person (not even a mannequin!) in the car that gets smashed. Nothing bad can happen if we're trying to be funny, right?

I must make myself clear -- I have no problem with "The Seaside Motel" being a comedy. I do have a problem, though, with it trying to adapt the aesthetic of earlier and much more successful zany comedies like "Survive Style 5+" and "Kamikaze Girls" to a story, or stories as the case may be, which so clearer demands a different approach. It seems, in fact, that this kind of broad, comic book style of comedy is starting to outstay its welcome in Japan. This is especially true when you have directors like Yosuke Fujita and Daihachi Yoshida either dialing down the zaniness and upping the pathos or not being afraid to abandon the clowning to take audiences into much darker territory when necessary. I do understand that "The Seaside Motel" was based on a manga by Yukio Okada (a work I'm unfamiliar with), but this adaptation is an object lesson in departing from the source material.

I really wished that I had liked "The Seaside Motel" more. Actually, let me rephrase that. I know that I would have liked "The Seaside Motel" more had it been put in the hands of a different director. I'd think a hot young filmmaker like Yosuke Okuda could have brought the right balance of laughs, sexuality and menace to this film. Also, one could dream for a moment and wish this adaptation had fallen into the lap of a genius filmmaker like Jim Jarmusch who proved in 1989 with "Mystery Train" that an ensemble motel-set movie can be both quirky and compelling. Sadly neither of these filmmakers were around to help out with "The Seaside Motel". That being the case you may want to check in somewhere else.

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