'In the Room': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
'In the Room'
Lust never sleeps.

Things get steamy in room 27 of the Hotel Singapura in Eric Khoo's multi-story erotic drama spanning several decades.

Singaporean festival regular Eric Khoo's In the Room explores how decades of sex, love, yearning and sorrow permeate the walls of a once-elegant hotel suite and linger like ghosts, long after the establishment's decline. It's an intriguing idea in a film likely to be noted for its ample skin and erotica content in a country notorious for the strict moral guidelines of its censorship laws. But the execution, particularly in the script and acting departments, leaves something to be desired, suggesting a prurient version of The Shining as imagined not by Stephen King but by that master of 1980s-'90s soft-core titillation, Zalman King.

The film is dedicated to the memory of the late horror writer and musician Damien Sin, who scripted Khoo's 1995 debut feature, Mee Pok Man, and inspired the closest thing to a central character here.

The entire film unfolds in room 27 of the Hotel Singapura, where Damien (Ian Tan), a '70s musician, dies of a heroin overdose on New Year's Eve and sticks around thereafter to haunt the sexual exchanges of the guests. Shortly before his death, while taking a breather out in the corridor from the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll orgy heating up inside, he meets pretty young hotel maid Imrah (Nadia Ar) and promises to write a song for her. While most of the hotel guests appear oblivious to his presence, Imrah clearly feels his dream-like spirit watching her through the years of her long employment there.

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"Once upon a time this was a grand hotel," whispers Damien's ghost. "Now it's in ruins." The Singapura's heyday is seen in a black and white opening sequence set in the 1940s during the Japanese invasion, when a British colonist (Daniel Jenkins) attempts unsuccessfully to persuade his married male lover, a foreign-educated Chinese rubber tree plantation owner (Koh Boon Pin), to flee the country with him to safety.

The decade-hopping stories that follow freely mix languages and cultures — English, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Malay — as well as kinks. The ardent young lover of a married Japanese woman tries to convince her to quit her unfulfilling marriage and seize a future with him; a transgender Thai woman prepares for sex reassignment surgery the following day while her nervous boyfriend performs farewell fellatio; a lusty Korean girl tries to erase the bitter taste of an ex through voracious sexual consumption while her virginal school buddy suffers in silence.

While the latter vignette is played partly for comedy, Khoo's default setting here is sonorous melodrama, with Christine Sham's syrupy score stickying up almost every scene. Some of the mini-narratives are mere glimpses that range from the sensual to the sordid, such as a dirty old man with a girl in a sailor dress, another unsavory type getting cozy with what appears to be a body in a bag, or a couple filming themselves on their smart phones during mid-coital frenzy.

It all looks quite sharp, thanks to Brian Gothong Tan's graceful cinematography and Arthur Chua's production design, which ranges from groovy psychedelic-era kitsch to lurid bordello reds to shabby, roach-infested squalor.

There's rich potential in exploring how the anonymity of a hotel room can liberate passionate feelings and create the fleeting illusion of permanence out of the ephemeral and illicit. And with a stretch of the imagination, one can find poignancy in the evidence of relationships flowering in this confined space but destined to wilt beyond its walls. However, the film's tone is too uneven and the writing and performances too lacking in subtlety to lend those ideas much of an intoxicating spell.


Cast: Choi Woo Shik, Kim Kkobbi, Koh Boon Pin, Daniel Jenkins, Show Nishino, Netnaphad Pulsavad, Ian Tan, W. Leon Unaprom, Lawrence Wong, Nadia Ar
Production companies: Really Good Film, Zhao Wei Films, in association with Infinite Studios, Bert Pictures
Director: Eric Khoo
Screenwriters: Jonathan Lim, Andrew Hook
Producers: Nansun Shi, Tan Fong Cheng, Jacqueline Khoo, Huang Junxiang
Executive producer: Jeffrey Chan
Director of photography: Brian Gothong Tan
Production designer: Arthur Chua
Costume designer: Meredith Lee
Music: Christine Sham, Christopher Khoo
Editor: Natalie Soh
Casting: Felicia Tan
Sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong
No rating, 90 minutes.