Adolescence is an awkward time of self-discovery and self-loathing, and its conflicts have been an obsession of artists and writers for about as long as there have been such things as art and writing. Sometimes they dig back into the past with a nostalgic fervor, and other times they try to replicate the strangeness and confusion often associated with puberty--and maybe by doing so understand.
It's this latter feeling that writer/director Michael Kang is going for with The Motel. This dry comedy is the story of Ernest (newcomer Jeffrey Chyau), an overweight Chinese-American boy of 13 who lives with his mother, sister, and grandfather at the family's roadside motel. Forced to clean the rooms after school and work the late-night shift at the front desk, Ernest sees all manner of people as they pass through, taking advantage of the hourly, daily, and weekly rates on offer. Everyone who stops by the motel is in some state of transition or other, and the plan they choose depends on how long it will take them to move on. It's only Ernest that is stuck for good, the motel becoming a hulking metaphor for the in-between phase his life is in. (And what better, more ironic name than Ernest for a boy who desperately wants a better life but has no idea how to pursue it?)
Ernest isn't without his ambitions, but one quickly gets the sense that he probably hasn't thought about what separates a childish endeavor from an adult one. He likes to write stories, but there is no distinction between the heartfelt tales he puts on papers and the kung-fu fantasies he enacts for himself when no one else is watching. He begins to get an inkling that there could be something more when he discovers he has gotten an honorable mention in a creative writing contest, only it's a success he can barely get close to. His mother (Jade Wu) threw out his award letter because he had not told her about the contest. She tells him that an honorable mention is worse than being a loser, because he was chosen as someone that needed to be singled out as not winning. It's more confusion for Ernest. She wants him to accept the adult responsibilities of the motel job, but she doesn't want him to have any freedom beyond her apron strings. He needs to fill in for his own father while also remaining a child.
It turns out that Ernest's motivation for entering the contest was pretty much in line with why any thirteen-year-old boy does anything: he wanted to impress a girl. Ernest is friends with Christine (Samantha Futerman, Memoirs of a Geisha), who is a couple of years older than him and works at her family's nearby Chinese restaurant. He hangs out with her behind the dumpsters while she smokes, showing her the nudie mags he finds left behind by departing guests. She stirs up his emotions, but he's not ready to cross over to the other side. He won't accept her cigarettes and only reluctantly admits to liking looking at naked women.
Enter Sam (Sung Kang, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), a loudmouth Korean who shows up drunk with a hooker on his arm. Ernest is simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by Sam, who it turns out is in the middle of a failing relationship. Perhaps spurred on by his loneliness, Sam forces his friendship on Ernest, pushing the young man to try things he has never tried, such as driving a car or playing a game of catch. In his own misguided way, Sam sees that Ernest hasn't had it easy without a male influence around, and he wants to give the kid a crash course in being a man. The two sneak out late at night and go on pitiful adventures that reveal Sam is doing it as much for his own good as for Ernest's. Yet, it starts to work, as Ernest begins standing up for himself in real life. He even tries one of Christine's cigarettes!
The Motel is Michael Kang's first feature, and it shows a healthy confidence with the camera and with actors. The tone of the movie is an awkward one, an attempt to mirror Ernest's pubescent frustrations. At points, Kang slows it down to a molasses pace, reflecting the boy's indecision. Yet, this also makes the movie feel like it's never quite taking off. Though some of the scenes start to brew a little pep--breaking into Sam's old house when his wife is out, Christine and Ernest taking a joy ride--Kang always stops short of a full-bore explosion. Even Ernest's final confrontation with his mentor fizzles out instead of going to the wall.
I think a lot of the problem is that Kang maintains too much of a distance from Ernest. What's going on in his head remains a real mystery, which seems to go against what little we know about the boy. One assumes that he is a thinker if he has an interest in writing out his life on paper. Given how prevalent voiceover is in movies these days, I have to wonder why Kang didn't use it here. Sure, wannabe-teenage-writer narration is a bit of a clichť, but I would have liked a little more insight into Ernest than a voyeuristic viewpoint provides.
Still, there is much that works in The Motel, and so plenty to recommend it. There are quite a few laughs derived from the oddball setting and characters. The actors are all really good, particularly the sweet and spunky Futerman and the dorky Sung Kang. The Sam character begins as obnoxious, but the actor is able to turn the way the guy tries too hard to be cool into an endearing quality, showing that he at least means well. The director also makes great use of the setting, showing the endless maze of motel rooms and the long, empty roads that lead away from them. Ernest can run, but to what? The location also provides an opportunity for a small parade of quirky characters that endlessly mystify the young boy, and many of them further confirm his outsider status by frequently bringing up issues of race. (Even Sam does this, cracking jokes about the differences between Koreans and Chinese.) These things alone are enough to make The Motel feel like something new in the well-worn coming-of-age market.
It's just too bad Michael Kang didn't invest a little more in his young protagonist. At a scrawny 76 minutes, The Motel has room for a little bit more alone time with Ernest, giving us less about his odd world and more about his transition. That would have transformed The Motel from a passable rest stop to the kind of place you'd want to visit again and again.
Presented at 16X9 widescreen, The Motel looks pretty good. It was shot mainly on location, and so there are often large, deep backgrounds that look both desolate and confining. This atmosphere comes through on this clean DVD transfer.
A pretty basic Dolby 5.1 Mix, as well as a 2.0 option. The sound is average, nothing really stands out. There is also an option for Closed Captioning.
The 22-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is an above average look at a production, showing lots of on-set footage and looking at the real camaraderie and idiosyncratic nature of the set, including mishaps. It's also interesting to see how much Jeffrey Chyau has already grown. His voice has started changing!
The "Director's Picks" section has four short snippets (about 3:30 combined) from Kang's favorite scenes, with the director and actors discussing how the takes went alongside behind-the-scenes footage. We also get the theatrical trailer for The Motel and four trailers for other Palm Pictures releases. These extra trailers don't have their own menu, but run back to back when you select them. There is also a weblinks section with urls for two websites you can either access through you computer DVD-ROM drive or just type out on your own.
The commentary track features director Michael Kang and actors Jeffrey Chyau and Sung Kang. There was already a bond between the actors similar to the bond their characters have in the movie evident in the behind-the-scenes feature, and that comes through here, but with Michael Kang, as well. The director leads the discussion and gives the most detail about the scenes and what was required to shoot them, but it's the friendship between all three that keeps it entertaining.
Rent It. The Motel is a good-enough debut for director Michael Kang, but I get the sense that it's really only a starting ground for things to come. This Asian-American story of one boy's rite of passage has a quirky setting and realistically flawed characters, but in the end, the filmmaker maintains too much of a distance from his main character to give The Motel a place amongst the classics of the teen movie genre. The DVD extras, however, are pretty good, making a complete package that's at least worth a look.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.