I have yet to see “Lost in Translation,” but I know one thing: Its story would probably be a non-starter if its two principals were Japanese. At least that’s the conclusion I reached after observing how Japanese studiously avoid compatriots not in their group at big-city hotels abroad.
In any case, the makers of “The Hotel Venus” were wise not to set their ensemble-drama, featuring a Korean and Japanese cast, in a too familiar locale like Los Angeles or Honolulu. Instead, the film, which is based on a Chaplinesque Korean character on late-night TV (played by Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), transcends the barriers of language and nationality in fresh and original, if fantastic, ways. The result has been a crowd-pleasing success, showing again that Kusanagi, who starred in last year’s surprise hit “Yomigaeri (Resurrection),” has a magic box-office touch. It has also jump-started the career of Hirota Takahashi, a director of TV dramas, commercials and music videos here making his feature debut.
“The Hotel Venus” would probably never survive a Hollywood pitch meeting, though. First, all the characters, even those played by Japanese actors, speak Korean. This sort of linguistic cross-dressing is easier to imagine in a Hollywood movie now, thanks to Mel Gibson — but still, it’s a stretch. Second, the film is not set in Korea, but an unidentified city (it was actually shot in Vladivostok) that serves as a melting pot and point of no return. Again, a tad too strange for Hollywood, which prefers its foreign locales to be identifiable (though it is all too happy to substitute Prague for London).
Takahashi and his collaborators, including cinematographer Jun Nakamura and production designer Yuji Tsuzuki, weave what could have been a cute gimmick into a meticulously integrated, impeccably stylish whole, filmed in silvery black-and-white. Yes, it may be a music-video sort of whole, in which the soundtrack — a melange of standards (“Someone to Watch Over Me”) and catchy J-pop by Love Psychedelico — comments insistently on the action. But unlike most music videos, which would be unbearable stretched to feature length, “The Hotel Venus” becomes closer in spirit to “The Grand Hotel” than MTV. The characters acquire flesh, blood and bones as their melodramatic stories develop and intertwine.
The main one is Chonan Kan (Kusanagi), the manager of an atmospherically seedy hostelry whose owner, Venus (Masachika Ichimura), is a wised-up old drag queen. Like the hotel’s guests — long-termers all — Chonan is one of the emotionally wounded, recovering from a tragic love affair. He spends his days making coffee (a take-it-or-leave-it house blend), doing the guests’ laundry and mordantly observing the turbulence of their lives.
First, there is a warring couple named only Doctor (Teruyuki Kagawa) and Wife (Miki Nakatani). The former spends his days in his room with a bottle, while the latter screams at him and whores for him. Naturally, they are madly in love.
Then there is Soda (Jo Eun Ji), a young woman who works at a tiny flower shop for a dodgy boss, and Boy (Lee Joon Gi), a punk who plays with a gun and imagines himself a hit man, though he has yet to harm a soul.
Into this tiny, self-enclosed world come Guy (Park Jung Woo), a strong-but-silent type, and Sai (Ko Do Hee), a girl who never speaks a word. Everyone has questions about these two: Are they father and daughter? Is he a criminal on the run? But answers are harder to come by.
The film is in no hurry to provide them. Instead it patiently records seemingly small acts — Chonan hanging clothes together with Sai, Soda agreeing to deliver a package for her boss — that reveal character and secrets. At times Takahashi’s direction comes uncomfortably close to the preciously stylized, as though he were more intent on selling the soundtrack CD to Shibuya girls than telling the story. By the third act, though, when Chonan and Sai finally break through their self-protective shells, “The Hotel Venus” develops narrative momentum as the hankies comes out.
Another ensemble drama now in the theaters is “Kyo no Dekigoto (A Day on the Planet).” The director is Isao Yukisada, whose career has soared since the commercial and critical success of “Go” (2001). Instead of “The Grand Hotel,” however, his model seems to be “The Big Chill,” Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film about baby boomers still on the brink of adulthood a decade after leaving college.
There is little in the way of a plot. Seven college friends gather at the apartment of one of their number, Masamichi (Shuji Kashiwabara), who is about to pursue an MA degree. An aspiring filmmaker named Nakazawa (Satoshi Tsumabuchi) brings his gorgeous-but-flighty girlfriend, Maki, and motor-mouthed pal Kate (Ayumi Ito), who promptly hits on the prettiest boy in the room, Kawachi. He is flummoxed by her badgering — I mean flirting — while the other guys, particularly the grungy, wild-haired Nishiyama, seethe. To kill time, Maki cuts hair in the bath, doing a wonderful job on Kawachi, but a terrible one on poor Nishiyama. Meanwhile, the TV is showing news items about a beached whale and a man trapped between two buildings. Which one do you think the gang goes to investigate?
Based on a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, “Kyo no Dekigoto” has a shambling naturalism. The characters are real-enough types, while the story has a ring of wry comic truth. But unlike “The Big Chill,” with its weekend-that-changes-everything, nothing much happens really — though by the end I knew that, if I had been caught in the same room with Yukisada’s two heroines, I would have fled after the first beer. Assuming they’d have acknowledged my existence, that is.