REVIEW: The Hotel Venus (2004)

hotelvenus_posterA decrepit old hotel behind a cafe is the home for an assembly of anonymous, regretful strangers in this surreal and weirdly mournful drama – a Japanese feature performed in Korean, and directed by Hideta Takahata.

The early 2000s saw a surge of popular interest in Japan for South Korean popular culture: the pop music, the television dramas, and the cinema. It led to such local phenomenon as the late night television series Chonan Gang, based around a Japanese singer (played by SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) trying to break out in the Korean music industry. The popularity of that series led to a prequel film: Hotel Venus (2004).

Here Chonan quietly mourns his girlfriend’s death while working as a handyman for a back street cafe and hotel. The hotel is host to a variety of eccentric long-term residents, each mourning a personal loss or hiding from their past. The arrival of a stranger with a young girl named Sai (Heui Ko To) has an unexpected seismic effect on the various loners and losers, as they are each spurred on to change their lives for the better.

In many respects Hotel Venus is simply the strangest thing. It is a Japanese film made for a Japanese audience, half-populated with Japanese actors such as Kusanagi and Miki Nakatani (Ring, Memories of Matsuko), yet performed in Korean and shot in Vladivostok. The entire film is shot in a strange combination of black, white and blue, which seems stylish at first but then begins to grate as the film goes on.

And what a grating film it is. One could argue that watching a prequel to a an entire television series without having seen one episode of the series was inevitably going to lead to disappointment, yet Hotel Venus does tell a relatively self-contained story and introduces each of its characters sufficiently. That story is, however, told very slowly. The film stretches past two hours on 45 minutes of plot. It regularly seems as if no scene will be complete without a lengthy monologue pitched for profundity but delivered as cliche. Everybody has problems, but nobody is in a rush to fix them.

The film is visibly cheap, with a shot-on-video look familiar to any viewer of Japanese television drama. It is also backed by a truly interminable score that consists of two indie Korean pop songs and an instrumental cover of “Someone to Watch Over Me” stuck in 120-minute loop. It is so repetitive and so regularly inappropriate to the action to become actively funny; then the humour wears thin, and there is still an hour of film to go. Even when the closing credits roll, it all stops to squeeze in even more plot and dialogue. Keen fans of members of the cast, or the original series, might find something of worth here. For everybody else Hotel Venus is a chore that never ends.

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