Even though the film has been widely publicised as Singapore’s first erotic film, director Eric Khoo insists his latest directorial effort, In The Room, is not all about the sex, but is instead an ode to the national cultural trends, landmarks and pop music of Singapore. In his words, it’s “a look at Singapore through the decades, a homage to the country”.
Dedicated to late horror writer Damien Sin, who wrote the bestselling Classic Singapore Horror Stories book series as well as Khoo’s career-launching Mee Pok Man, the film is an anthology of short stories, each set in a different era and centred on themes of love and lust. All the action takes place in Room 27 at the fictional Singapura Hotel.
In a nutshell, the six vignettes are: Rubber, a black-and-white short that focuses on a British expatriate (Daniel Jenkins) taking leave of his Chinese companion (Koh Boon Pin) on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Singapore in the 1940s; Pussy, a colourful, loud and campy comedic segment in which a mistress of the sex trade (Josie Ho) imparts advice to her buxom, ditzy ingénues on how to dominate men and reduces a virile triad leader to a pathetic mess; Listen, in which melancholic writer Sin (Ian Tan) navigates the rowdy, psychedelic chaos of a 1970s New Year’s Eve sex orgy and meets sweet, young chambermaid Imrah (Nadia AR) in a bittersweet love story that was just not meant to be; Change, which centres on Thai transgender woman Noi’s (Netnaphad Pulsavad) last intimate night with her lover (W. Leon Unaprom) before she goes under the knife to complete her transition; Search, a final tryst in a torrid affair between married Japanese woman Mariko (Show Nishino) and her Singaporean lover Boon (Lawrence Wong), who yearns for more of an emotional commitment than she is prepared to offer; and lastly, First Time, a tale of unrequited love and lust between Seo Yun (Choi Woo Shik), a Korean nymphomaniac in search of her elusive orgasm, and Min Jun (Kim Kkobbi), her virgin male best buddy who has been secretly nursing a crush on her for the longest time.
Despite Khoo’s best intentions to conceptualise the film as a poignant omnibus of interwoven tales of heartache and loss, doomed to repeat themselves in the confines of the same non-descript hotel room over decades of our local history, the execution clearly falls short. The focuses more on style over substance, resulting in what can best be summed up as an artistically perfect take on soft-core erotica, which presumably is what Khoo intended it to be.
While production designer Arthur Chua and costume designer Meredith Lee clearly shone in their stylistic approaches to the evolving sets and costumes that demarcate the film’s changing eras, the same cannot be said, sadly, for the rest of the production.
Unlike his far more successful previous outings in the critically acclaimed 12 Storeys and even his short segment Cinema in 7 Letters, anything resembling cohesion between the six short stories in this film is severely lacking. To say that they are strung together by a common theme of love and lust, and that they all happened within the same hotel room, feels flimsy at best, and contrived at worst. Had the six disjointed stories taken place in six different hotels spread across various countries, it would not have made any difference to the overarching storyline of the film.
In fact, the addition of the superfluous subplot of Sin becoming a voyeur spirit after he dies – fleeting in and out of the latter half of the stories, pining for his missed chance at love with an ageing Imrah, leering at Noi mid-coitus with her lover, commiserating with the heartbroken Boon and coaxing Seo Yun into the throes of ecstasy – feels jarringly out of place, as if it was deliberately written in as an attempt to connect the latter three stories to the first half of the film.
By the end of the film, the Singapura Hotel has deteriorated from its glorious heyday to become a dilapidated ruin – it serves, coincidentally, not only as Khoo’s metaphor for the festering and fading away of the many relationships that took place within the hotel’s walls, but also as a representation of the audience’s great expectations, which wane as the film progresses from story to story.
Summary: To use a sexual metaphor, In The Room could be described as a night with a gorgeous high-class social escort who – while remarkable in her beauty, oozes with alluring sensuality and knows just how to hit the right G-spots in the boudoir – unfortunately lacks in emotion and soul, leaving one empty and longing for more at the end.
RATING: 2 out of 5 stars
– Jonathan Sung