SGIFF Review: Kabukicho Love Hotel

Contrary to what its R21 rating and director Ryūichi Hiroki's acclaim in the "pinku" genre of filmmaking might suggest, Kabukicho Love Hotel (2014) is much more concerned with feeling than flesh. The film follows, for a full day and a night, a group of largely working-class individuals whose lives intersect around a modest love hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo’s eponymous red-light district.


Toru is the reluctant employee unlucky enough to encounter, in a wild coincidence, both his girlfriend Saya (an aspiring musician trying to secure a recording contract) and his sister Miyu (who is acting in porn films for income) at his workplace. Interconnected plotlines reveal the stories of Satomi, a nondescript cleaning lady and her fugitive husband Yasuo, both wanted criminals on whose case the statute of limitations will very soon expire; two cops engaged in an extramarital affair; a Korean escort, Mena, and her chef boyfriend, Chong-su, who are keeping secrets from each other; and the unlikely kinship between Hinako, an innocent runaway teenager and Masaya, the gangster who is meant to recruit her into prostitution.


Belying their pedigree as high-profile celebrities (the cast includes Atsuko Maeda from Japanese idol girl group AKB48 and Son Il-kwon from Korean boyband 5tion) the ensemble cast members deliver measured, naturalistic performances and thus creditably manage to share screen time without overshadowing each other in a crowded and occasionally uneven narrative.

Especially compelling is Lee Eun-woo as Mena, an escort soon due to return home to Korea, where she will use her earnings to open a boutique with her mother. Where Toru, brooding, restless and dissatisfied with his job, wears his heart on his tracksuit uniform’s baggy sleeves, Mena, known to her clients as “Ilia”, is ever cheerful, hardworking and thoughtful. She sees clients right up till her departure, gets her colleagues to pinky-promise that they’ll visit her in Korea, and delivers thoughtful gifts (a bowtie for Toru, because he’ll need one for the fancy hotel job he dreams of) to the familiar faces she soon has to bid farewell to. All the while, she is also working hard to keep from her boyfriend Chong-su, an aspiring restaurant owner, the realities of her job and the depth of her sorrow at leaving him. In a scene telling of this film’s priorities, in their sensual bathtub encounter, their nudity seems almost incidental to their emotional nakedness; the intimacy peaks not with physical climax but with their mutual confessions.

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Not each storyline is equally believable and well-resolved; the tension between siblings Toru and Miya is underexplored, while gangster Masaya's change of heart seems almost too good to be true. Director Hiroki also attempts to work broader issues into his film, making reference to anti-Korean sentiment, the continuing after effects of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, but only at a superficial level. Only one such moment leaves a truly sobering impact: when an older "streetwalker" that Toru harshly dismisses is later stabbed in an altercation with a customer. But at more than two hours in length, the film has room to present the ennui and minutiae behind the scenes at the hotel: the lazy employee's antics in the break room, the pizzas to be delivered to the porn film crew, the condoms ("candies") that are the housekeeping staff's final flourish. The film's true strength lies in offering up moments of intimacy infused with warmth and humour, and reminding us of the rich inner lives of the most unassuming of individuals.

Ultimately, Kabukicho Love Hotel is a feel-good film that, as it ends, generously allows all its main characters hopeful, if tentative beginnings. The film closes as it began, with Saya plucking at her guitar, singing plaintive lines about heartbreak, as a new day’s light filters into her apartment. Quite as she was at the film’s start, she is again alone, but now a little wiser; she still has her music. Siblings Toru (notably, sans any baggage) and Miyu are headed home, unknown to each other, on the same bus out of the city. Mena and Chong-su, holding hands, talk of marriage, while Hinako and Masaya share a heaping mountain of nuggets in a diner. As the credits roll, Satomi and Yasuo heave a sigh of relief after counting down to their freedom. Together or alone, as the sun rises over Tokyo once more, Kabukicho Love Hotel’s characters are headed towards home, which is simply wherever it is their hearts lie—at least for now.



Review by Aditi Shiva Image credits

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