Filmmaker Eric Khoo’s 50th birthday gift to Singapore: an arthouse sex movie
In The Room charts city state’s history through six sexually charged vignettes set in one room of a hotel based on the former New 7th Storey Hotel, where queen of striptease Rose Chan reigned
As Singapore’s most prominent arthouse auteur, Eric Khoo takes pride in telling his country’s stories on screen – and that applies even to a sexually charged movie with a diverse pan-Asian cast. In the Room, while featuring Hong Kong actress Josie Ho Chiu-yee as a lingerie-clad sex guru and Japanese porn star Show Nishino in softcore scenes, is still an unmistakably Singaporean story at heart.
The seed for the project was initially planted for Khoo and Hong Kong producer Nansun Shi several years ago, when the two discussed the possibility of collaborating on “a sensual and erotic film” in the mould of Emmanuelle. “And then, it was around three years back that I suddenly had this idea about a hotel room, where we would have the stories unfold,” says the 51-year-old filmmaker.
When he was acting as the jury president at the 2013 Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, Khoo once stayed in a hotel room in which the ashtray hadn’t been cleared. “When I entered the room, there were two cigarette butts on the ashtray – one with lipstick on it and the other without. And I thought, ‘What was the conversation that happened in the room?’,” he says.
Ostensibly a microcosm of Singapore over the decades, the omnibus film comprises six self-contained tales of carnal encounters that take place inside the same room, while reflecting the evolving cultural values outside it. It begins with the 1940s-set Rubber, about a clandestine gay romance between a British expat and his Chinese lover on the eve of the Japanese occupation. A ’70s-set transgender love story, titled Change, alludes to Singapore’s pioneering role in introducing sex change operations.
Shot over 10 days on a couple of soundstages, Khoo’s film is entirely set in Room 27 of the fictional Singapura Hotel, which is in turn based on The New 7th Storey Hotel, a once-glamorous Singaporean hotel that closed in 2008. “The 7th Storey Hotel was actually the tallest hotel in Singapore during the 50s,” says the director, who remembers visiting the building when he was a child. Khoo is in fact a son of the late hotelier Khoo Teck Puat, at one point the richest man in Singapore
Khoo says he has previously included a shot of the hotel in the opening sequence of Mee Pok Man, his full-length feature debut from 1995 and now an essential film in Singaporean film history. “It was a high-end place, a grand place – but as the years went on, the hotel became very dilapidated,” he says.
According to Josie Ho, the legacy of the 7th Storey Hotel was felt not just in Singapore but the greater region of Asia. “There was a very famous rooftop bar in this hotel, where live music was played and many a famous singer had performed. It was a great gathering spot for celebrities; [Mona] Fong Yat-Wah was performing there when she met Run Run Shaw, for example.”
Although she is a billionaire heiress herself, being a daughter of gaming magnate Stanley Ho, the actress admits to having never asked her family if they’d been a part of The 7th Storey’s social scene. The sexually explicit content of her 1950s-set segment in In the Room probably wouldn’t make the conversation any more comfortable, either: while it’s all implied rather than shown, Ho plays a formidable stripper who can perform incredible tricks with her genitalia.
Ho’s character is based on the real-life figure of Rose Chan, a Chinese-born, Malaysia-based cabaret dancer who earned herself the title of “Queen of Striptease” in the ’50s. “Rose is someone that’s really, really strong,” says Khoo. “I remember the first time I skyped with Josie, she was just that. She was perfect. I’m a big fan of Dream Home, the movie that Josie produced and acted in [as a psychopath].”
In a curious way, Ho’s new character may be viewed as an extension of one of her most recognisable screen personas to date: she played a prostitute of incredible oral skills in Naked Ambition and won the best supporting actress prize at the 2004 Hong Kong Film Awards. “I think Eric wants to show a very open-minded woman from that era: Rose Chan was ahead of her time,” says Ho.
In the Room then moves on to a ’60s-set story, which marks Khoo’s tribute to his friend Damien Sin, who scripted Mee Pok Man, but died of a drug overdose in 2011. In the new film, a musician called Damien (played by Ian Tan) suffers the same fate after meeting a lovely maid (Nadia AR) in the hotel corridor; his ghost then lingers to silently haunt the residents of Room 27.
“Damien was constantly writing horror stories back then; I wanted to pay homage and eventually made him the spirit of the room,” explains Khoo, who also envisages his film as a Twilight Zone-like anthology. Working with screenwriters Jonathon Lim and Andrew Hook, the director was intentionally giving contrasting tones to the stand-alone stories.
“We thought it’d be exciting if some stories are a bit funnier, some are a little bit more dark,” says Khoo. “We then decided we need to give it a form, of Singapore through the decades. Last year was Singapore’s 50th birthday. So in a sense, we wanted to do a homage to Singapore’s 50th as well.”
Another person that Khoo has paid homage to in the film is the influential manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whom he collaborated with on the animated biopic Tatsumi (2011). Tatsumi died in March 2015 – halfway through writing a screenplay for Khoo, tentatively about the woman who spends her whole life searching for her dead boyfriend’s reincarnation.
Given its eclectic materials, it may be little surprise that In the Room has met with mixed critical reception since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. In any case, Khoo is likely too experienced to feel discouraged, having made his breakthrough in the arthouse cinema circuit back in 1996, when Mee Pok Man premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.
Khoo’s third feature, the critically acclaimed Be With Me, was chosen to open the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 2005. His fourth effort, My Magic, became the first Singaporean production to make the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival three years later.
“I was like a country bumpkin who ended up at these festivals,” he says, laughing. “Unless it’s premiered at a recognisable festival, it’s difficult otherwise [for a Singaporean film] to be noticed. So every time we try to push the films out to the Ivy League festivals. It’s important for a Singaporean film, especially if it’s a little bit artistic, to get a premiere at an important festival.
“Singapore has a small population,” he continues, “so when you look at the [box office] numbers, they may not be as big as a superhero title, like The Avengers. A lot of the films we make are pretty tight in terms of budget. It’s still important that the films do sell overseas.”
Despite the difficulty of making it as a Singaporean filmmaker, Khoo is not about to give up making films for his people. His next movie will be a contemporary feel-good buddy movie about food, the director reveals. “I love Singapore, and it’s wonderful that as a Singaporean filmmaker, I can take the films overseas and have them screened at festivals. It’s great that we can put Singapore up there on the international screen.”
In the Room opens on April 21
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