No sex at a love hotel.
A movie set in a love hotel, but without a single sex scene? A 59-year-old woman as the heroine? It’s hard to imagine that particular pitch loosening purse strings at major Japanese media companies. A fatally ill teenager? That’s more like it.
Director Izuru Kumasaka has incorporated these and other decidedly uncommercial elements into debut feature “Park and Love Hotel” (titled “Asyl” — short for “Asylum” — internationally), which won the Best First Feature Award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. So small miracles do happen, though Kumasaka had an angel in the form of the Pia Film Festival, which gave him a scholarship that included backing for “Park and Love Hotel” for winning three awards in its 2005 edition with his short film “Tea and Milk (Kocha to Milk).”
Kumasaka, who also wrote the script, has made “Park and Love Hotel” a typical Japanese indie film in everything from its deliberate pace and absence of plot to its darkish, grainy visual texture. Instead of two hours of typical indie tedium, however, he has given us four women dealing with loss and loneliness, as well as questions of meaning and purpose, that all are memorably individual and vital. Their drama unfolds in a space that looks like a fantasy at first glance, but comes to feel real — or at least realizable. Their stories may not always have neat endings, but their various epiphanies have a piquant rightness. Though not upbeat in any formulaic way, the film gives off a warm, almost paradisical, glow.
It unfolds in a down-at-the-heels love hotel where a stolid middle-aged manager, Tsuyako (Lily), presides. But when Mika (Hikari Kajiwara), a 13-year-old runaway with gray-dyed hair, happens by, she notices a gang of boys and other unlikely “customers” going inside. Following them up the stairs, Mika discovers that the roof of the hotel has been converted into a park, complete with swings, benches and a playhouse used by young and old alike, none of whom seem concerned about the erotic acrobatics going on underneath.
Tsuyako offers Mika shelter and later scolds her when she finds the girl with a knife, apparently about to slash her wrists. They quarrel, but Mika, after spying on her divorced father with his happy new family — the purpose of her trip — feels comforted by Tsuyako’s anger. At least one adult, she realizes, cares. She is not as alone in the world as she had thought.
Just we are settling into this story about a surrogate mother-daughter relationship, Mika departs with a cheery wave and the film switches narrative gears to Tsuki (Chiharu), a housewife who fast walks past the love hotel every day at the same time. Tsuyako is always outside, sweeping the street when Tsuki passes. They exchange “Good mornings” just as they have for 16 years. After her walk, Tsuki records her total steps from her pedometer in a small notebook — the only “diary” she keeps of her dull existence. Then, one day, the notebook goes missing and Tsuki, searching frantically for it on her walking course, has her first-ever conversation with Tsuyako. She also visits the rooftop park — and is inspired to make a life-changing decision. sk
Finally, there is Marika (Sachi Jinno), a prickly-but-dishy 17-year-old who is a hotel regular, bringing a different guy each time and always carrying a small metal attache case. She is not a prostitute, but rather a researcher of an unusual kind. She is also curious about Tsuyako, whom she senses is harboring painful secrets, and decides to find out what they are.
Holding all these disparate story threads together is Lily, the singer-turned-actress who plays Tsuyako with a matronly gravity while registering every flicker of thought and emotion. Tsuyako doesn’t say much — especially about herself — but we always know what she is feeling, from aching loneliness to defensive anger. She doesn’t ask for pity, or even expect attention, but she does demand obedience from her park visitors, whom she chases away with a clap of her hands promptly at sunset.
Kumasaka lays on the symbolism a trifle thick — Marika’s fascination with sperm as bearers of the life force is one rather icky example — but his ending is absolutely right, coming as it does from everything we’ve learned about Tsuyako, including her need, just like everyone else on the roof, for some human connection. But we also know that tomorrow she’ll be out front, just as always, sweeping — and waiting for that next significant stranger. –Mark Schilling