The opening night gala film for the Reel Asian International Film Festival, Michael Kang’s debut, Motel, is an interesting choice. Separate from the festival’s national spotlight, Malaysia, by virtue of being an American production (the script workshopped at a Sundance filmmakers lab), but it fits the festival very well, with pan-Asian appeal, featuring both Korean and Chinese Americans, and exploring the themes the expected audience of the festival are undoubtedly familiar with - the struggles of growing up Asian in North America.
Motel is a strange little indie film, set in the depths of the nowhere, USA that the majority of the American population knows – the empty space between cities, featuring nothing but endless desolate freeways, peppered with motels, all you can eat restaurants, and other road side ‘attractions’. The protagonist, Ernest, is a lonely, alienated 13 year old, who just happens to have been saddled with the joint albatrosses of not only being Asian American but also to be trapped cleaning away the soiled sheets and used condoms at his mother’s sleazy hourly rate motel.
Quiet and overweight, Ernest spends his free time either writing, or sitting on the dumpster outside the local Chinese restaurant, where he unsubtly allows his crush on the teenage waitress, Christine, to flourish, until the charismatic Korean-American Sam turns up at the motel, slurring drunk, tall blonde prostitute in tow. The card he gives Ernest as payment before quickly breezing off is declined, leading to a chain of events where, in an attempt to reclaim the money, an unlikely friendship is struck.
Unlike most films featuring the coming of age struggle, this takes the conventions from it’s relatively straight set up, and gives them none of the wish fulfilment that you might expect. Ernest’s talent as a writer and wish for freedom leads to conflict with his mother that remains unresolved, Sam, the mysterious stranger that blows into town with promise of adventure and personal development, is, in turn, as broken and alienated as Ernest, and Ernest’s desperate longing for Christine results in a disastrous attempt to seize the day that leads to everything crumbling down.
Motel does edge dangerously close to being tremendously depressing, but is elevated by many moments of genuine humour and pathos, in particular from a captivating performance from the lead, Jeffrey Chyau. The depth of his character takes the film beyond simply describing the Asian experience, instead speaking to anyone who has ever had difficult teen years (everyone, surely?), with the occasional nods to casual racism (and overt racism) less meaningful than the aspects of Ernest’s life that are cross cultural – in particular the relationship with his mother that forms the core of the film.
It’s easy, however, with the amount of traditional conventions the film takes on, to feel a sense of déjà vu, indeed with Kang’s filmmaking also very much in the current ‘style’ of American independent movies. Despite this, refreshingly free of sentimentality and ending with none of the expected easy answers, Motel offers something different, and entirely worthy.