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The minutia of genre is subject matter that will be eternally debated by cinephiles, but at its most basic level its reason for being is classification and establishing expectation. When a film is categorized as “Sci-Fi Horror,” you go in expecting advanced technologies and scenes that might make you scream. If a film is designated “Action-Adventure,” that’s a set up for a winding narrative and a few chase scenes and/or physical fights. That brings us to William Olsson’s Lost Girls And Love Hotels, which has been sold as a “Romantic Drama” – but the question that emerges from the work is if a movie can carry that specific genre label if it proves to be neither romantic nor dramatic.
Rather than featuring either of those things, what the film presents instead is 97 minutes of an unsympathetic character’s experienced ennui in a foreign country mixed with a boring relationship that desperately attempts to reach out to the Fifty Shades crowd by featuring flashes of “taboo” sex play. At its most entertaining it is eye-rollingly stupid, but even those moments are overwhelmed by the total nothingness that transpires between the opening and end credits.
Our protagonist in Lost Girls And Love Hotels is a young American woman named Margaret (Alexandra Daddario) who lives in Japan and is employed as an English pronunciation teacher at a local flight attendant school. She has a supportive boss (Mariko Tsutsui) who seems to care about her, but that doesn’t really matter because Margaret is too obsessed with her own sadness to care about her job – instead opting to spend each night getting drunk with a couple of other expatriates (Carice van Houten, Andrew Rothney) and finding strangers to have submissive sex with at a local love hotel.
Finally she does find a man, Kazu (Takehiro Hira), who is willing to choke and restrain her the way that she wants, and the two begin to see each other regularly. It turns out that he is apparently a violent gangster, which is something that doesn’t seem to faze her in the slightest, but what does send her spinning is the revelation that he’s in another relationship. Unable to handle, her perpetual self-destructive streak continues.
Alexandra Daddario’s Margaret is given practically zero context or depth, making her a hard character to follow.
While possessing basic empathy demands that one cares for another person when they are upset or distressed (and yes, that includes fictional characters), Margaret is a tremendously hard lead to connect with given that she does absolutely nothing to try and help herself and the story doesn’t provide any clarification as to why she is gripped by such horrific emotions. The most we learn about her backstory is that she doesn’t have any family – her father left when she was young, her mother died from cancer, and her brother is schizophrenic – but we are all well aware of cinematic protagonists who face far worse circumstances and don’t spend their entire time on screen bemoaning it.
That’s not an exaggeration either, as there is no real arc to follow for the character. Lost Girls And Love Hotels begins with Margaret as a mess, showing her arriving to work late and disheveled after long night, and the constant flimsiness of the film’s central destructive relationship helps nothing. Every choice she makes is the wrong one, and when you factor in that a number of those bad moves are made purposefully with clear knowledge of the consequences, at some point you just throw your hands up.
Without a strong protagonist to follow, Lost Girls And Love Hotels flounders.
The film’s issues with Margaret would perhaps be more tolerable if it were a two hander, occasionally cutting away to events in the life of another character, but that’s not the case, as she is at the center of every scene. With zero motivation, her story as no arc and therefore fails to meet the basic requirements of a story (though don’t think that the movie doesn’t attempt to totally fake it in its final moments, because it tries very hard to convince you that non-existent change transpires). It’s all just a cycle of sadness, fast cut sex scenes, and more sadness. And it gets tedious fast.
Some nice cinematography doesn’t negate absurd navel-gazing and lack of story.
Lost Girls And Love Hotels tries to dress itself up and elevate the material with its foreign setting and some base level philosophizing (mostly using Japanese vocabulary), and to the film’s credit it have some pretty cinematography and set design – but it’s all just window dressing that provides no actual depth. The direction is prudish and stiff in strict contrast to the subject matter, and when it does try to be artful, such as a sequence where Margaret and Kazu visit a special location to be “reborn,” it feels hollow and trite. There is also a bad telling instead of showing problem that frequently detracts from the film, with the whole characterization of Kazu being a glaring example (the movie suggests that he is a member of the yakuza, but it could easily be a lie given how little his character is actually explored beyond thin conversations that take place between the sheets).
Ultimately it seems like nobody bothered to ask about the identity of the audience that Lost Girls And Love Hotels is looking to capture, as watching the film it seems as though that group will be limited to sad white women in Japan looking to pop culture to try and justify not attempting to improve their lives (which has to be a pretty small market). One could look at it as a PSA against self-loathing, but mostly it’s just a really bad movie.