In The Room, an omnibus feature comprising six stories by local director Eric Khoo, has been touted as Singapore’s first - gasp! - sex drama. But while much hoo-ha has been made about this film’s transgressive content, In The Room is ultimately a snooze-fest that contains nary a hint of sensuality or derring-do.
In The Room weaves together several narratives spanning several decades, all of them transpiring in Room 27 of a Singaporean hotel. In the first vignette, shot in black and white, a pair of lovers – an Englishman and a local – part ways a day before the Japanese invasion. Later, In the ‘70s, Damien (Ian Tan), a musician, dies of a drug overdose on New Year's Eve and his spirit sticks around to observe the shenanigans of the guests. Shortly before his overdose, he meets young hotel maid Imrah (Nadia Ar) and promises to write a song for her. After death foils his plans, his ghost continues to pine over her. Their scenes are interspersed between the vignettes, threading the disparate stories together.
The film’s second chapter is its most exuberant one. Taking place in the ‘50s, this surreal, brightly-coloured comedic yarn is a tribute to cabaret dancer Rose Chan, and features feisty sexpot Orchid’s (Josie Ho) attempts to teach her students how to exert sexual dominance over men. The entire sequence may seem ridiculous at first, but it is so silly, so over the top that it morphs into something genuinely hilarious. If women shooting ping pong balls from their genitalia don’t get you laughing, nothing in this film will.
Barring this inspired segment, the other stories bore. A particularly dreary vignette involves a Singaporean man (Lawrence Wong) and a married Japanese woman (Show Nishino) enjoying a tryst. The man yearns for a shared future for them, but the woman, the more cynical one, rebuffs his romantic hopes. Their sex scenes were oddly filmed: Nishino is made to moan all the time even when there’s hardly any body contact between them. It’s difficult to understand why the actors were directed in such a timid manner – they were so cautious around each other, their body contact so awkward, it’s hard to evince even an iota of chemistry between them. I had to summon all my willpower to stifle my laughter even as I kept seeing Nishino’s character do the sexy moaning thing while Wong’s character was barely even touching her.
That the film fails to evoke any semblance of poignancy or passion isn’t because the sex captured in the film is bad – other films have managed to use bad sex in purposeful ways. It’s because the sex in In The Room is bad in an unintentional fashion: a mix of unconvincing acting and strange directorial choices rob the film of any sensuality, turning what’s supposed to be affecting or provocative into something absolutely banal.
But chief among In The Room’s transgressions is its utter tone-deafness regarding its sex scenes. In “First Time”, the film’s last segment, a sexually adventurous but emotionally scarred Korean girl (Kim Kkobbi) shares the room with her virginal male friend (Choi Woo-shik). The guy first witnesses his friend bringing a stranger to their hotel room, then her having sex with the latter. Brimming with frustration, he has sex with her later while she is inebriated and oblivious to what’s going on. The entire scene is played up for laughs without any awareness that what has transpired in the scene is basically rape.
In the end, the film is no greater than the sum of its parts, which never gel into a coherent examination of how sex affects our lives. Vignette after vignette, the film tries to use sex to grasp at something universal about the human experience, but with every passing segment, all it does is limp towards its hollow, flaccid end.
Written by Raymond Tan