'Hotel Dallas': Film Review

Hotel Dallas Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Dreaming of Southfork in the wild East.

This arty documentary revisits the strange love affair between Communist Romania and the long-running TV soap 'Dallas,' with help from Bobby Ewing himself.

A bizarre guest appearance by former Dallas star Patrick Duffy is the key selling point for this unorthodox docu-fiction hybrid, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last week. Blending Cold War memoir with 1980s pop-culture homage, Hotel Dallas was written, produced and directed by a married couple of New York City-based artists, Livia Ungur and Sherng-Lee Huang.

Partly funded by a grant from Yale, where Ungur studed art, the duo's debut feature overcomes its obviously limited budget with wit, imagination and visual flair. That said, Hotel Dallas still has the experimental feel and niche appeal of an art project. Beyond film festivals, left-field documentary channels and perhaps even galleries will be its most obvious home.

The inspiration for Hotel Dallas is rooted in Ungur's childhood memories of Communist-era Romania in the 1980s, when Dallas was the only U.S. import screened on state-controlled TV, ostensibly as cautionary propaganda about the evils of Western capitalism. But the plan backfired when the show became hugely popular among impoverished Romanians, who embraced it as aspirational lifestyle porn. Indeed, Larry "J.R." Hagman later credited Dallas with helping to topple the country's former dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu.

Hagman himself cashed in on the show's enduring cult appeal, making TV commercials for oil products in post-Communist Romania, which Ungur and Huang include in their patchwork of old and new material. One local sunflower-oil tycoon even went as far as building his own Southfork-style ranch hotel close to the southeastern city of Slobozia, erecting a quarter-sized Eiffel Tower replica in the garden as an added bonus. This surreal location explains the film's title and serves as a narrative jumping-off point.

Both directors appear in the film. A pixie-like figure in an outsized cowboy hat, Ungur plays a fictionalized version of her younger self, blurring reality and fantasy, documentary and lightly scrambled autobiography. The central plot is a kind of dreamlike road trip across present-day Romania, with Duffy providing the voiceover as a baffled American tourist clearly modeled on his Dallas character Bobby Ewing. Recording his contributions in Los Angeles, Duffy is mostly a vocal presence, though the filmmakers also incorporate short visual snippets of him into their deconstructed, arty collage.

Punctuating this loose central narrative are multiple offbeat digressions, including clips of the 1947 John Wayne Western Angel and the Badman and monochrome restagings of key Dallas plotlines, all given an ironic Cold War twist by child actors dressed as Pioneers, Romania's Communist youth group. There is even a playful reworking of the show's opening credits sequence, complete with a gypsy-folk version of the theme music.

There is probably a keen audience for a straight, informative, fact-driven documentary about the soft-power role that hugely popular U.S. shows such as Dallas played in hastening the fall of the Berlin Wall. But this is not that film. Instead, Ungur and Huang have made something far more eccentric, esoteric and impressionistic. Hotel Dallas is maddeningly quirky in places, making few concessions to mainstream docudrama conventions. But it is also rather lovely in its loopy rhythms and luscious visuals, a charmingly personal take on shared cultural memories.

Production company: Ungur & Huang, New York
Cast: Livia Ungur, Patrick Duffy, Razvan Doroftei, Serena Sgardea,
Maria Croitoru, Nicu Ungureanu, Sherng-Lee Huang
Directors-screenwriters–producers: Livia Ungur, Sherng-Lee Huang
Editor: Sherng-Lee Huang
Music: Samuel Suggs
Sound design: Adam Chimera
Sales: Heretic Outreach, Athens

Not rated, 75 minutes