“The Love Hotel” – 2014 Asian American Int’l Film Festival Review

Phil Cox and Hikaru Toda’s brief and breezy documentary “The Love Hotel” looks at the titular phenomenon in Japan through an examination of the customers and staff of the Angelo Hotel in Osaka. A brief prologue informs us that there are more than 37,000 love hotels in Japan, frequented by 2.8 million Japanese a day, and alludes to a long history of these sorts of establishments. This opening is set to the visual accompaniment of erotic ukiyo-e paintings.

The film proper introduces us to a number of characters who revolve around this hotel, both staff and regular customers. There is a middle-aged married couple who comes to the hotel as a place to regain some intimacy by experimenting with sexual games and role play. Their intimate moments are challenged by some sort of medical condition the wife suffers from that causes pain to her skin. However, they seem to be quite a loving couple determined to make it through their difficulties, and their story is the most touching of the film.

We also meet Rika, a dominatrix who uses the hotel as a meeting place for her clientele. The scenes with her occasion some of the kinkier scenes. The accoutrements and practices we see are those you would expect – lots of leather, chains, masks, and whipping. Rika is very matter-of-fact in describing her work, and there is no sense of shame in her as she freely talks about the things she does and the types of clients she services. Other than the sexual nature of her profession, her manner is basically the same as any woman in the corporate world. She also serves as a social worker of a sort, functioning as a sounding board and a sympathetic ear for her clients’ stresses and frustrations. She is the consummate professional, and one who has a strict policy of never having sexual intercourse with her clients.

The film features a gay couple, both lawyers, who find that love hotels are the only places they can freely be intimate, because of the largely conservative and repressive nature of their everyday surroundings. They must live in a social milieu that still remains hostile to open same-sex relationships, and they are unable to show their affection for each other in public. Behind the closed doors of their hotel, they can leave society’s imposed inhibitions behind and fully indulge in sexual intercourse, role play, and deeply confessional conversations.  We also meet the manager and staff of the hotel, who go about the normal tasks associated with any hotel, but here, of course, with a kinkier twist. The staff delivers food and other amenities, as well as the all-important item of sex toys, through a series of pneumatic tubes that shoot capsules of whatever is ordered directly to the rooms.

“The Love Hotel” proves to be not only a very intimate look – complete with nudity and sex scenes – at its subject, but also a time capsule. The latter stages of the film show the impact of Japan’s increasingly conservative government regarding these love hotels as a threat to the social order, and they seek to neutralize this perceived threat by imposing more stringently repressive regulations. These include the outlawing of sex-themed rooms, and prohibiting dancing after midnight. Police raids of these hotels are also becoming more frequent. These new regulations are relayed through TV news reports that become more dominant as the film goes along, conveying the encroachment on the freedoms of the people who frequent these hotels. This is illustrated by a scene in which the gay couple tries to book a room at another hotel, but is turned away – even though there are clearly vacancies – by staff fearful of being raided.

The regulations have a great impact on the Angelo Hotel, which eventually is forced to temporarily shut down operations and lay off its staff in order to renovate its establishment to comply with the new laws. These changes are pretty much meant to rob the love hotels of their uniquely kinky and rather fun atmosphere, and to turn them into rather drab and joyless, anonymous spaces. However, the staff ends this phase in the life of their hotel with a festive party, one which has the hotel manager dressing up in drag.

While “The Love Hotel” boasts a provocative and intriguing subject, it unfortunately doesn’t live up to its potential in fully exploring its themes. There isn’t much context or real in-depth analysis of its subject; the prologue hinting at a historical context turns out to be just a tease, and seemingly an excuse to include some sexually explicit old paintings. Also, we don’t hear anything from the other side, and don’t get much insight into the reasons the authorities are so threatened by these establishments, other than as a simple function of imposed politically conservative values. It seems that, on the contrary, that these places serve a valuable purpose, as a pressure-valve reliever of the stresses Japanese feel in their daily lives. But without any sort of expert commentary or actual analysis, the viewer is left to guess at the social implications of all this. The lamentable result is that “The Love Hotel” doesn’t get much beyond voyeuristic gawking at the antics of those weird, kinky Japanese.

“The Love Hotel” screens at the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) on July 25, 8:30 p.m., at City Cinema Village East, and July 26, 3 p.m., at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP in DUMBO, Brooklyn. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit AAIFF’s website.