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HONG KONG — To enter the rich mise-en-scene of Hotel Black Cat is to be pampered by sensory pleasures of pretty faces, coffee-table book visuals and fey, youthful background music. However, there is a fundamental, perhaps fatal discord between form and matter in this hodgepodge work revolving around an inn inhabited by strange and secretive tenants. The protagonists’ experiences are harrowing and sordid, but they are represented in fanciful, lollipop aesthetics. It makes one suspicious of the filmmaker Herb Hsu’s standpoint and intention.
Hsu’s narrative structure is symptomatic of many new generation Taiwan filmmakers whose feature length ventures are thinly disguised amalgams of shorts. Its lack of one strong lead story will weaken its impression on buyers and audiences alike, limiting commercial prospects to short spells of semi-arthouse release domestically.
Once a hotly pursued nightclub hostess, Mang (Tsai Ming-liang regular Lu Yi-cheng) is now past her prime, and seems content running a retro-design inn. Her lodgers are the eccentric types that have become fixtures in arthouse indies or film school graduation assignments.
Chau-Chau (Wen Zhen-ling) is a high school girl who always wears a uniform but never goes to school. She is inseparable from her toy bunny. Liu (Wen Ji-xing) has not allowed anyone in his room for 11 years. He dresses like a flasher and fishily tails Chau-Chau. Ling-Long (Huang Cai-yi) is an aging prostitute who has an ambiguously sexual relationship with her mentally challenged son Kang. Asano (Yukihiko Kageyama) is a laid-off Japanese salaryman feigning he’s still gainfully employed.
Loose scenes of their present lives are interspersed with elliptical revelations of their pasts, all of which are tainted by thwarted love, domestic abuse, sexual violence and shocking brutality. Too fraught with flashbacks and shifting tonal gears, the characters and their situations end up seeming contrived. A deeper exploration of guilt might have added some heft. Only Mang’s and Chau-Chua’s parts are developed more coherently and engagingly.
There’s an unpleasant duality regarding images of women. On the one hand, they are fetishized in ravishing costumes and ethereal soft-focus shots; on the other hand, they are represented as psychotic victims. This is particularly serious with Chau Chau’s Lolita image, which is exploited for voyeuristic effect.
As a new director, Hsu gift for crafting visually arresting compositions is unquestionable. However, the art direction is so decorative it looks like it’s devised for a photo-shoot for trendy magazines rather than evocations of living, breathing spaces – to the point where even humans look like figurines in a dollhouse.
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