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Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Retro Review: The Motel (2005)

The Motel
Cast: Jeffrey Chyau, Sung Kang, Jade Wu, Samantha Futerman 
Genre: Drama

Plot: 13-year-old Ernest Chin lives and works at a sleazy hourly-rate motel on the strip of a desolate suburban bi-way. Misunderstood by his family and blindly careening into puberty, Ernest befriends Sam Kim, a self-destructive yet charismatic Korean man who has checked in. Sam teaches the fatherless boy all the rites of manhood

'Worth Staying'

An adaptation of the Ed Lang novel, Waylaid, Michael Kang's portrait of 13-yr-old Ernest Chin, a Chinese American boy, captures the desperation and difficulties of being an adolescent teenager and whilst it is doesn't shout from the rooftops and makes itself heard, nor is it as familiar as other Asian American films such as The Joy Luck Club and the recent Crazy Rich Asians, its modest intentions and low-key showing, it tells its story well within the runtime and it doesn't feel bogged down with details.  

Fatherless Ernest is overweight, teased for being a large kid and for being Asian by bullies he encounters and is very quiet and goes to school. He pretty much represents that stereotype of the bright, smart Asian kid, but he is also not so much like that stereotype as he swears, smokes and looks at porn magazines and is preoccupied with sex. Ernest is at a stage where he shuffles between childhood and puberty; he aspires to become a writer, but his mum thinks he is spending too much time on his homework. His mother, Ahma runs the inn that is occupied by various couples and visitors. Ernest becomes bored and finds himself at loggerheads with his draconian mother, who makes him clean the rooms and he also has a younger sister to contend with and a grandfather who lives with them. 

Ernest is racially harassed and teased by bullies, he has a crush on an older girl, who works as a waitress at the restaurant. At first, she comes across as being a bit cold, annoyed but eventually she treats him kindly. & yet, she has no interest in becoming his girlfriend. There is also an arrogant Korean-American, Sam Kim, who drinks a lot and is down in the dumps, who befriends and finds solace in Ernest and the two hit it off as buddies. Ahma is displeased with this, even when Sam helps and takes Ernest under his wing, like a father figure, that is absent from his life. Being the rebellion that he is, Sam represents the freedom for Ernest, who feels he is constantly trapped inside this bubble. But being a nerd and lacking confidence, Sam is the catalyst for Ernest in gaining that motivation to stand up for himself.  

The drama doesn't explode, nor make the type of impact and though it remains earnest even for an R-rated film, it feels a little too earnest to my liking and there should have been more weight that was added to the story. The Motel could have also worked as a family-friendly affair and reached a far wider audience, particularly towards young Asian Americans, who could emphasise with and relate to Ernest. 

There were also no characters I could root for, although in Ernest, his circumstances and the way he came across meant to me he was a tad more empathetic than the others. & only a tad, because whilst Michael Kang tries to paint Ernest as a sympathetic figure, he doesn't show much in the way of emotions and is too much of a recluse, but also who is not a completely amiable one, either. 

Whilst it is not an exceedingly amazing film and the Asian American characters are paradoxical to ones as seen in other movies, it's a real shame that as laudable as movies such as The Motel is, which try to offer a different, unique & less showy version of the Asian American onscreen experience, these will be overlooked in favour of so-called overexposed rom-com fare such as Crazy Rich Asians. The performances here are well done and solid and being an Asian-American film, it grapples with issues of identity and culture, which aren't too noticeable, in addition to teenhood and adolescence. 

Final Verdict: 

With a runtime of approximately 1 hr, 15 mins, The Motel wins plaudits from me for offering a coming-of-age tale that is told with refreshing honesty and realism. And that is especially a rarity for Asian American movies, as this doesn't happen very often. 


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