'Love Hotel': Sarajevo Review

Love Hotel Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Native Voice Films

Love Hotel Still - H 2014

Down at the end of Lonely Street

This rare peek at the inner secrets of a Japanese love hotel finds ancient traditions of sexual freedom under threat from creeping conservative values

It may initially seem to promise a cheap holiday in other people's erotic fantasy, but Love Hotel ultimately delivers a more sophisticated exploration of sex and romance in the 21st century. The first full documentary ever shot inside one of Japan's 37,000 love hotels was painstakingly gathered over three years by British director Phil Cox and his Japanese collaborator Hikaru Toda. Cox previously won positive reviews for his colorful 2011 Sundance entry The Bengali Detective, which was bought by Fox Searchlight for a fictionalized remake.

A human interest story that swings from prurient to playful to poignant, Love Hotel is a Franco-British co-production with sufficiently juicy subject matter and technical polish for widespread audience appeal. It screens at the Sarajevo Film Festival this week, with more festival bookings ahead. After a limited U.K. cinema release next month, the film will air on BBC television. The New York-based FilmBuff Cinetic has signed a global distribution deal and plans both a theatrical and VOD release in the U.S. this fall.

Used by 2.8 million people daily, love hotels are perfectly legal fantasy spaces where Japanese couples go to escape crowded family homes and strict social rituals. They are also ideal for extra-marital affairs, secret gay hookups and more extreme sexual transactions. Love Hotel features a few mildly explicit scenes, but voyeuristic titillation is not the game here. Neither is the lazy option of turning Japan's sexual subculture into a comic freak show for foreign viewers. Instead, Cox and Toda weave together a clutch of character studies from the clientele of the Angelo Hotel in Osaka. Some are funny, some strange, most seem a little sad and lost.

Mr Yamada is a 71-year-old widower who comes to the hotel alone, watches porno films and reflects ruefully on his past. Yuki is a young office worker having an illicit affair with a married man. Kazu and Fumi are gay lawyers under pressure to keep their relationship a secret. One couple in their 40s come to the hotel hoping to rekindle the spent passion of their youth through role play. A pair of divorcees in their 60s still rent a room every week to dance together. A lonely businessman employs a dominatrix to tackle urges he can not satisfy with his wife.

Lurking unobtrusively behind the camera, often for hours on end, Cox and Toda are rewarded with some remarkably intimate confessional material. They also probe the hotel's backstage workings, eavesdropping on manager and staff. The political machinations here are at least as engrossing as the sex scenes, especially when a conservative government is elected in 2012, placing love hotels under strict new laws which threaten the Angelo's future. The story ends with staff cuts and refurbishments, broader cultural shifts that lend this enjoyably quirky human-interest story a deeper social context.

Production companies: Native Voice Films, Bonne Pioche
Directors: Phil Cox, Hikaru Toda
Producers: Giovanna Stopponi and Sophie Parrault
Cameras: Phil Cox, Hikaru Toda
Editor: Esteban Uyarra
Music: Florencia Di Concilio 
Sales company: Native Voice Films
No rating, 80 minutes