Review: The Motel
I've been afraid to admit this in the past, but I'm going to come clean today. I am not Asian. Many of you are probably shocked right now but you'll come to terms with this, just as I have. My not being Asian became crystal clear while watching Michael Kang's feature film directorial debut, The Motel. I very much enjoyed the film, but I left some potential enjoyment on the table since I didn't grow up in an Asian household.
The Motel follows Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau), his mother and his sister, who run a motel that seems to be off a tiny highway in the middle of nowhere. Ernest is a Chinese thirteen year-old struggling with the early stages of pubescence in a world were pubescence and depravity run rampant. Sam (Sung Kang) is a hotel guest who takes on a fraternal role with Ernest while dealing with a separation from his wife (which means sleeping with hookers and drinking boatloads of JD between and during his buddy sessions with Ernest). The rest plays out as you'd expect, with Ernest trying some new things, getting shot down, disobeying his mother and generally growing up.
Sam and Ernest were the driving force throughout the film as I was often getting sidetracked by poor acting or continuity errors. In fact, the package was far from glossy and even may have been dropped a few times during delivery. Despite this, Sam and Ernest shined through. I was thoroughly wrapped up in the plot and can still visualize many of the best scenes a week and a half later. Ernest's mother, played by Jade Wu, played a stock version of a Chinese-American mother, but had a few great moments. I especially enjoyed her stare down with Ernest near the end of the film.
While I couldn't quite catch all of the goodness in The Motel due to my non-Asian-ness, I was engaged throughout, which is a testament to the film. Many race-oriented comedies tend to be all about inside jokes and snappy one-liners, but Kang is clearly trying to do more. As he says in his director's statement:
Though this is an "Asian American" film, I think what was always most important to me was the idea that the narrative had to be solid in its craft. I have seen too many "ethnic" films that become didactic or forsake story for politics (or worse the story is the politics!). The Motel strives for a similar aesthetic and balance as films like Star Maps and Smoke Signals. Though the film is unapologetic ally culturally specific, it is only as successful as it is rooted in showing complex characters and telling a complete story.
The last line of his statement sums it up for me. The story's complexity allows it to be accessible to everyone while providing an extra bonus for those who grew up in this world. Basically, The Motel doesn't rely on stupid gags and decided to have a rock-solid story instead. The short yet dense plot is easily strong enough to make you forget the production gaffs and lose track of each of the seventy-five minutes of the movie. Hopefully the film will get a true release so you won't have to wait for the DVD.