As with a number of other quarantine-produced movies that have seen release since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Hotel operates by the logic of a “locked room”-type scenario, where people with existing relationships are stuck together for longer periods than they normally would be (or in some cases, strangers are forced to get acquainted) and then talk at each other a lot, about not just the crisis at hand but all other aspects of their lives exterior to it. The Hotel also seems a fitting extension of Wang’s last film, So Long, My Son, at least in the sense that it tackles an ensemble of characters (there, a family) and attempts to spin a broader statement on cross-generational relationships in Chinese society.
And as with So Long, the clear weak point here is how Wang renders characters of the younger generation specifically. In the mid-1990s, Wang was at the vanguard of a nascent Chinese independent film scene, and seemed to be better than almost anyone at capturing the malaise and disaffection felt by a generation of Chinese artist-intellectuals, with films like 1993’s The Days and 1994’s Frozen. But like so many of his Sixth Generation contemporaries, he’s gradually lost the pulse of the youth – which in turn has given way to occasionally quite provocative (if unevenly written) studies of generational trauma, like Red Amnesia and Shanghai Dreams, that place the disillusionment his era succumbed to within a historical context.
The past looms large again in Wang’s latest, about an assortment of mostly Chinese occupants at a hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who are caught in an early-pandemic lockdown and begin to pontificate to each other about what it means to be alienated from their country. One blind, gay Chinese man questions his hunky, Thai-born but ethnically Chinese attendant about his family history, learning that his grandfather was a Kuomintang army officer who resettled in Thailand after the Communist Revolution. A middle-aged, former college professor and his former student wife see the cracks in their relationship tested by repeated arguments about the origins of Covid and the veracity of Chinese news reporting, as well as by the man’s willingness to flirt back with an attractive 19-year-old girl. Said girl has her own special relationship to the past, since her mother (who’s also staying at the hotel) has never told her who her father was – but has promised to finally do so, on the occasion of her upcoming twentieth birthday.
There are a couple of other characters, most notably a man who the professor’s wife tells him is a “famous painter” (although on the one occasion we glimpse what he’s sketching, it’s comically terrible), and the 19-year-old’s mother, who eventually proves to be key to the whole plot. Wang also jumbles the order of the chapters a bit, starting with two and three and then doubling back to one, but also kind of playing fast and loose with that logic since events that we see play out in the earlier chapters do so again from a different perspective in the later (supposedly chronologically earlier) one. In any case, The Hotel – with its black-and-white cinematography and very-scripted dialogue – isn’t aiming for realism, and indeed its most compelling moments tend to be the ones that flirt with the avant-garde sensibilities present in Wang’s earlier films.
When Wang sticks to the storylines here that involve the older characters, his writing is markedly better – as in a tender scene between the professor and his wife that unpacks how their relationship has deteriorated since he left his cushy job and sacrificed a sizeable retirement pay-out over his dissident political views. But Wang doesn’t accord the same complexity or emotional nuance to the development of his younger characters, whom he tends to view in the most simple and sentimental terms or as a kind of mouthpiece for his own cynical views. The latter is certainly more interesting to watch, and the last act of The Hotel introduces a twist that we mostly see coming but still surprises for the way it allows the film to fold back on itself, and serves as an extension of Wang’s interest in exploring cyclical narratives. But then The Hotel goes on for one more scene than necessary, hammering home the twist and cheapening its message, in the process reminding just how poor Wang’s instincts as a writer can be.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.