Wednesday, February 28, 2007

[DVD] The Motel (2005)

I've always been curious about Asian American movies, because being Asian, you'll easily find some angle in which you're able to identify with, and despite some being indie, the production values are actually high. In my limited exposure to such films as Robot Stories and Saving Face, both of which I enjoyed tremendously, it just piqued my interest to find out about more of such films out there, and Fate has brought The Motel to my attention.

Everyone will recall some memorable events when growing up, either that tussle with the bully, that disagreement with seemingly unreasonable parents, the sibling you love to hate, or that puppy love experience with someone cute, whom you find a tad difficult to declare your feelings to - hey, you're only a teen!

Written and directed by Michael Kang, and based on the novel "Waylaid" by Ed Lin, this indie movie has already garnered awards in the film festival circuit, like the HUMANITAS prize in the Sundance Feature Film category. And it's no surprise why, as the film is endearing with its ensemble characters, especially the protagonist Ernest, a thirteen year old teen growing up in a sleazy hourly-rated motel, the kind you'd think twice about allowing your kid to be nurtured in.

Played by Jeffrey Chyau, Ernest will probably endear himself to you, because of that rolly-polly frame, and his being stuck at the crossroads of his 13 years of life, lacklustre, dazed and confused. The target for bullies, at home and amongst peers, it's no fun juggling school work and house work - being the designated housekeeper of the motel, picking up dubious remains in rooms, and falling in love with your best pal - Christine (Samantha Futerman), 2 years older and like himself, works in a family owned business.

The film takes its time to introduce us to Ernest's life, but all hell breaks loose with the arrival of carefree Sam (Sung Kang), one of the Motel's customer whom Ernest unwittingly allowed to stay despite his credit bouncing. To Ernest, he's the kind of guy who's cool - with a hot car and spending the nights with hot babes, and not before long, Sam takes it upon himself to guide Ernest through his state of confusion and inertia, imparting valuable skills in which to use to impress the girl of his dreams.

The pacing of the movie is a breeze, as we drift from episode to episode, and Sung Kang really ramped up the movie with his chemistry with Jeffrey Chau. The characters bounce off each other with so much natural energy, you wonder how much more it would take to keep them on screen all the time - Ernest, in having a surrogate father figure, someone cool to counter balance the miserableness of living with a domineering mother (played to perfection by Jade Wu), and Sam, finding an outlet to lend someone a helping hand, a redemption on his part for his sorry past and lifestyle.

With plenty of comedy, through witty dialogue or physical jokes (watch out for that scene to rival American Pie!), The Motel engages your attention before spinning towards a darker atmosphere, leading to a finale that touches the right chord, that perhaps things don't look all that bad and hopeless, that with the right influences, mindset and acceptance, puberty after all, isn't all that bad a stage to go through, despite screwing up once in a while.

For those who want to give Asian American indie films a try, why not check into The Motel?

Audio and Visual
The 16x9 widescreen transfer is generally sharp, save for the outdoor night scenes which at times turned out to be too dark, losing some details. The Motel comes in Dolby Digital surround sound 2.0 stereo or 5.1, which is more than adequate given that there aren't any huge sound effects.

There are a decent number of extras included in the DVD, though what was sorely missing were the deleted scenes which director Michael Kang and actors Sung Kang and Jeffrey Chyau mentioned in their commentary. The commentary shared plenty of inside jokes and behind the scenes look at what transpired in the creation of the movie, and you can almost feel the strong camaraderie amongst the trio, all the way to the end credits, though at times there are occasional lapses of silence, especially toward the end.

The simple bits were the US theatrical trailer, some previews of movies like Wondrous Oblivion, Rolling Family, Clean and I Trust You to Kill Me, and weblinks to the Puberty Sucks webpage, as well as the webpage of Palm Pictures.

The main beef comes from the Behind the Scenes Featurette (22 mins), containing plenty of interviews with cast and crew, and some footage of the rehearsal readings. The featurette is organized into logical sections (though non selectable from a menu), from "Constructing the Motel", "Working With Kids", to individual sections devoted to principal cast members, where opinions from the rest were shared. You can also see how Jeffrey and Sung bonded with their out of production activities, as well as watch how some minor disasters crept their way onto the set.

The Director's Picks contains 4 separate mini featurettes which you can watch them all in one go, or individually. With a combined running time of not more than 4 minutes, you'll see why Michael Kang has chosen these 4 particular scenes for extra emphasis, as they contain memorable moments for both cast and crew, especially "The Kiss", which has on celluloid, Jeffrey Chyau's first kiss, ever!

You can visit the official website of The Motel by clicking on this link, which includes 3 parts of a podcast series with the director Michael Kang speaking to the producer and the leads.

The DVD is available for order, and you can get it from Palm Pictures.

For those of you on MySpace, you can visit the movie's MySpace page. There's also a YouTube "Worst Puberty Story" contest, and you can get the details here.

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