Flashes of brilliance aren’t enough to save a sleepy, sad script.
“You know I love you. Do I have to put it into words?”
Motel Cactus was one of the films I was looking forward to the most in last year’s London Korean Film Festival. The premise – four stories, all set in room 407 the titular Motel Cactus, a sort of love hotel – felt interesting, and there were a lot of good names attached to it, from a point in their career when they were all just starting out. The four stories are fairly straightforward: A girl celebrating her birthday with her boyfriend; a college student rents the room to shoot this thesis film with an actress; a salesman meets a woman in a bar, and takes her to the room and; this same guy is joined from an old college flame, hoping to start their relationship again.
You can tell straight away that this movie is a fairly simple affair, and none of the stories are anything particularly mind-blowing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as no one’s going into this romantic drama expecting world-shattering revelations and genre-defying scenes. But considering just how much I was looking forward to it – probably expecting something like the romantic dramas from Hong Kong’s New Wave – I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that it was such a bland production.
What makes Motel Cactus so interesting is the inclusion of a few soon-to-be big names amongst its production. The two names that really stand out here are Bong Joon-ho and Christopher Doyle. Bong, Korea’s most versatile and interesting director this side of Kim Jee-woon, will certainly be a big draw for Korean film fans but it’s difficult to get a sense of his trademark style here. Bong was 28 when he wrote this, and had only 2 short films under his belt, so he’s still learning the ropes. But it’s still tricky to get a sense that the director of Memories of Murder or Okja co-wrote this one: there simply isn’t enough in its script for the association to be made.
And it’s not like it’s a terrible screenplay. The writing is good, certainly, but it feels amateurish and unrefined. The four stories centred on one hotel room is reminiscent of a lot of movies (more recently, Kim Jong-kwan’s The Table), and all of them share similar themes of love and loss. You’ve seen it all before, and it’s just all a bit hollow. Even the more interesting plots feel like they end as soon as we begin to understand each character, their motivations and where their stories are going. To have focused on, say, the guy from the end throughout the entire story might have worked better. We could have seen how he’s grown over the years, and the way he uses the hotel room would have shown us the changes he goes through. But instead we get nothing that’s connected, and no reason to really care.
Christopher Doyle is better known for his work in Hong Kong, with directors like Wong Kar-wai. He’s famous for giving Wong’s films that distinctive look – you know the one: close-ups of concerned expressions, neon-lit rooms, plenty of shots through glass. His style is in full force here, and gives us the uncanny impression that we are, in fact, watching a Wong Kar-wai film. It’s so strong that when I was thinking back to this film, I had imagined Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Faye Wong and Tony Leung in leading roles. I had completely forgotten that Motel Cactus is a Korean film. It’s tricky to tell if director Park Ki-Yong was trying to emulate this as Doyle had worked with Wong on four features by this point, but the comparisons are inevitable, and not favourable.
Motel Cactus isn’t a bad film, and sometimes is actually an intense, often quite sad look at failing relationships. The characters are stuck in their ways, symbolised by the near constant watery imagery like rain trapping them indoors. But that it never really made its mark in the ways other films in its vein has is indicative of a pretty big issue. It’s good, but never great. It’s like the filmmakers saw there was potential, but never really delved into it too much. And that’s maybe the right word to us. Much the same way as it showcases the work of Bong or Doyle, the whole film could be seen as an exercise in potential. There’s a lot that could happen: a few drafts might remove segments, allowing the others to breathe better, but it never quite gets to that point.
Verdict: If you’ve exhausted your other romantic drama options, Motel Cactus certainly will fill that hole but there are just so many others like it that it’s kind of difficult to recommend.
Overall entertainment: 5/10
That one painting: Kinda ugly, isn’t it
Motel Cactus (1997)
Also known as: Motel Seoninjang
Director: Park Ki-Yong
Writers: Bong Joon-ho, Park Ki-Yong
Jin Hee-kyung – Choi Hyun-joo
Jung Woo-sung – Lee Mi-ku
Lee Mi-yeon – Min Hee-soo
Park Shin-yang – Kim Suk-tae
Shin Dong-hwan – Postman