Motel Mist (Thailand, 2016)

A former child star disappears amid reports that he was hallucinating having conversations with aliens. A middle-aged man picks up a teenager and takes her to a nearby love motel, but is followed by her girlfriend with other plans. A suspicious man checks in but insists on staying in Room Five. As their lives interlace within the pastel confines of the motel, the story veers into increasingly strange and violent directions, ultimately inviting more questions than answers.

Motel Mist stares into the depths of a Bangkok love hotel dripping with mood, color and brutal absurdity. Director Prabda Yoon – known for his diverse work across novels, short stories, screenplays, and graphic design – brings an assured hand to the production, carefully composing each frame and investing its narrative with literary ambiguity. Undoubtedly, his film is original, and demonstrates a confidence atypical for a first-time filmmaker.

Over the past twenty years, Thailand has developed a reputation as a center for strong independent and experimental filmmaking. Founded on the successes of heavyweights such as Wisit Sasanatieng and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and nurtured by an increasingly diverse generation of talented emerging filmmakers, Thai independent cinema has become a fixture on the international festival circuit with a reputation for originality and its commitment to personal expression.

Like his contemporaries, however, Yoon is constrained by state censorship, forcing the political critiques of his debut feature beneath the surface. Although censorship has always factored into Thai media production, the 2014 military coup tightened its stranglehold and heightened the need for criticism of government power. Viewed on these terms, subtle bites to the ankles of power start to become visible. Sopol (Surapol Poonpiriya), a sadistic older man obsessed with wielding power over young women, seems an effective metaphor for the hypocrisy of the military patriarchs governing the country: he surrounds himself with high-end electronics while slapping the phone out of a young woman’s hand, and ‘tastefully’ prefers retro pornography to the crudeness of digital. Nestled throughout the film, these jabs elevate an otherwise bleak film to a clever satire.

What Motel Mist lacks is a defined sense of place. Aside from a few shots near the beginning, we never get a clear look at the motel itself – the connecting tissue of corridors, reception desks and vending machines that give a sense of its everyday rhythms. Instead, its colorful suites feel like spaces to themselves, detached from the other rooms that (supposedly) sit around them. Maybe this architectural separation is meant to reflect the social separation of its occupants, its strange and eclectic décor a nod to the alien presence haunting Room Five. But for me, I hoped that a film named after a place would at least take the time to establish a clear portrait of its namesake, rather than submerging it in the strange experiences of a single night’s guests.

Also at issue is Motel Mist’s intense (and arguably unnecessary) portrayal of sexual violence. Much of its runtime is spent picturing specific acts of sexual violence committed against its characters, but it is unclear whether it is warranted. Yoon has stated in an interview that he aimed to produce a “sense of oppression, discomfort, of strict control and the desire to escape,” and in this respect he succeeded. Many of these scenes are claustrophobic close-up or point of view shots, placing us perilously close to the source of danger. But again, I must ask: to what end? Like Ben Young’s Hounds of Love (2016), Motel Mist seems to bank on sexual violence as a source of edginess but coming from a male director who predominantly subjects young women to a sadomasochistic gaze, its edges stick out as problematically sharp.

Motel Mist showcases the promising creativity of a talented artist, while the colorful cinematography of Chananun Chotrungroj and assured editing from Lee Chatametikool ground the film in strong technical competency. Yet for many viewers the characters will seem thin and the plot incomprehensible, blunting the seriousness of its creative team. In a late stage of the film, two characters dress as cowboys and swordfight with two oversized dildos. Shot in slow motion as they bounce on a bed, the shot captures a playfulness that is sadly absent in the rest of the film.

Ultimately, Motel Mist is a courageous creative effort that struggles to find its place. Fans of transgressive art cinema may find a lot to like here, but many others will struggle with its cocktail of alienation and bewilderment.

Motel Mist will be released in the USA and Canada in May 2019 by Breaking Glass Pictures.