There is an issue when somebody tries to review Eric Khoo’s films. Despite of the opinion you might have about them, the fact remains that a number of them are landmarks of Singaporean cinema. For example, “12 Storeys” was the first film from Singapore to screen at Cannes; “My Magic” remains the only movie from Singapore to be nominated for the Palme D’Or; “Be With Me” was the first Singaporean film to be nominated for the European Film Awards in 2005. In this particular case, “In the Room” is credited as the first Singaporean erotic movie, which actually means a lot when one considers the strictness of the censorship board of the country, which actually caused a lot of trouble to Khoo before it finally allowed the film to screen in Singapore under an R21 classification. This aspect, of all the aforementioned films, makes reviewing them quite hard, since they are more significant that “normal” movies. Nevertheless, I will try once more.
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The film is dedicated to the memory of the late horror writer and musician Damien Sin, who scripted Khoo’s 1995 debut feature, Mee Pok Man. He died of a heroin overdose and loved writhing supernatural stories. The six different stories take place in a single room, number 27 in Hotel Singapura, which actually symbolizes the country, and stretch from 1942 and the surrender of the British troops in Singapore to Japanese, to present times.
The first part is shot in black-and-white and takes place on the eve of the invasion, when a British expat is bidding farewell to his Chinese male lover, trying to persuade him to come with him. The part is filled with nostalgia, and functions like a metaphor for the relationship between the “dying” British Empire and colonial Singapore.
The second, and the most entertaining part, takes place in the 60’s and revolves around a “madam”, Orchid, who tries to teach other sex workers how to make the most out of their profession. Unfortunately, the mob boss who “owns” the girls, and is supposedly a legendary lover, makes his appearance and soon initiates a sex competition with Orchid, with the girls being the trophy. This part is filled with color, absurd titillating comedy (the ping pong balls scene is bound to stay in mind) and also offers a great performance by Josie Ho as Orchid.
The third is the part that functions as the tribute to Damien Sin, and takes place during a sex and drugs party in New Year’s Eve in the 70s, where the protagonist seems not to feel as part of his group, and soon leaves the room to linger in the hotel corridor, where he meets Imrah, a beautiful young maid, and promises to write a song for her. A bit later he overdoses, and his ghost, along with Imrah, become the two permanent characters of the different stories. This part is quite dramatic, with the alienation the protagonist feels and his tragic ending coming to complete antithesis with the party the rest of his group experiences.
In the fourth one, a Thai transgender woman meets her lover before she undergoes a sex-change operation, with the part ending with the man paying a last “tribute” to her former self.
The fifth one and the most erotic of the six shows a married Japanese woman has sex with her young Singaporean lover, who desperately tries to persuade her to leave her husband for him, but to no avail. This part is the most polished one, in terms of production, but also the one with the least depth, in genuine, erotic film fashion.
The last one deals with a promiscuous and emotionally unstable Korean girl who spends the night in the hotel with her school buddy who is still a virgin, and actually has to suffer (?) listening to her having sex while laying in the bed next to her. His last act though, as she is lying unconscious after being drunk, suggests something else about him.
Eric Khoo had a very difficult task in his hands, since he only had 10 days to shoot a film that would function as a tribute to Damien Sin and his beliefs (according to Khoo, he had had very strong political values and felt strongly for the underdog), a time journey capturing the multicultural history of Singapore, and the first erotic movie of the country. Expectantly, in such a short time and with 104 minutes of duration, it was impossible for all goals to be achieved fully. In that fashion, the differences in Singaporean culture, particularly regarding sex, are presented well enough, but the same does not apply to the sociopolitical context, while the metaphor for the crumbling relationships and Sin’s life through the crumbling of the hotel is difficult to discern. Shame and secrecy as concepts on the other hand, are presented quite well, through the fourth and sixth segment. The tribute to Damien Sin requires some knowledge at least about him in order to be understood fully, and I felt that some more time should be allocated to this aspect. Lastly, the erotic part is excellent , benefiting the most from the protagonists’ looks, the great camera work, and Khoo’s direction in that aspect.
In general, the visuals of the film are impressive, with Brian Gothong Tan doing a great job in the cinematography , with the trait expanding to Arthur Chua’s production design and Meredith Lee’s costumes, with the two having the difficult task of presenting the different eras in a way that the audience can realize, and succeeded to the fullest.
Some issues with the acting in some segments do exist, but Koh Boon Pin as the Chinese in the first segment, Josie Ho as Orchid, Kim Kkobi as the Korean girl, and Choi Woo-shik as the boy in the last segment are quite good.
In general, I would say that the film functions quite well as an erotic film, but less so as a drama. Definitely deserves a watch though, since the various segments work for the most part, although mostly individually, and not so much as a whole.