Film review: In the Room - sadness pervades Singaporean Eric Khoo’s erotic sextet
Set in the same Singapore hotel room over the course of several decades, the film’s six chapters don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts, but contain some inspired moments
Arthouse director Eric Khoo weaves together glimpses of Singaporean history, eclectic tales of carnal desire, and posthumous tributes to his own artistic friends in this collection of stylistically diverse short stories, set in the same hotel room over several decades. While it’s unlikely that any one viewer will enjoy all six of its episodes, In the Room will reward the more patient viewer with its slow-burning tales of uncertainty and regret.
WARNING: Trailer contains coarse language
It begins grimly with “Rubber”, a black-and-white vignette set on the eve of the Japanese occupation of Singapore in 1942. Although the hotel is still a swanky establishment, the purported last meeting between a British expat (Daniel Jenkins) and his local Singaporean lover (Koh Boon Pin) – a married man who must stay to attend to his family’s business – alludes both to Singapore’s colonial history and the subject matter of the film’s other chapters.
While the colourful second story – named after a slang term for women’s genitals – underscores the sexual liberation of the ’60s through a wacky portrayal of a formidable stripper (Josie Ho Chiu-yee), the film only starts to find its rhythm with the third chapter, “Listen”. As Khoo’s homage to the late author-musician Damien Sin, this segment sees a musician (Ian Tan) die in a drug overdose after flirting with a maid (Nadia AR) in the corridor. His spirit will keep on haunting the room.
In the slightly campy ’70s story “Change”, a Thai transgender woman (Netnaphad Pulsavad) and her lover (Wasurat Unaprom) anxiously confirm their love for each other before the former undergoes sex-change surgery. In the 1980s-set “Search”, the director’s tribute to the late manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a married Japanese woman (Show Nishino) coolly turns down the love of her Singaporean sex partner (Lawrence Wong), only to regret it for a very long time to come.
In a nod to the past of the film’s inspiration, the now-demolished New 7th Storey Hotel in Singapore, the setting of Khoo’s film evolves into a rundown budget hotel as the stories unfold. The film culminates in the segment “First Time”, arguably its darkest story, in which lifelong friends from South Korea – a virginal boy (Choi Woo-shik) and a sexually promiscuous girl (Kim Kkobbi) – share the same room, with surprisingly nasty consequences.
Taken as a whole, the anthology offers occasionally subversive, often melodramatic narratives that are steeped in sorrow. Khoo may not have found a convincing thesis to turn this into something more than the sum of its parts, but there’s no denying that his film has its inspired moments. For all its sexually charged sequences, In the Room is really more about the lingering sadness that results from the transient encounters it depicts.
In the Room opens on April 21
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