Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Review: Country Hotel

  • Directed by Ratana Pestonji
  • Starring Chana Sri-Ubon, Surasit Sattayawong, Sarinthip Siriwan, Prajuab Reukyamdee
  • 1957, available on DVD with English subtitles from the Thai Film Foundation
  • Rating: 5/5

I've finally seen the spring from which Wisit Sasanatieng drank that inspired his Tears of the Black Tiger, and the water is very good indeed.

Not that Ratana Pestonji's Country Hotel is a great film, but it is a fun movie that offers rewards for repeat viewings, just to catch the nuances that I didn't think were possible. Overall, there's an elegant, understated style to this film that I find enjoyable.

Essentially, Country Hotel is a stage play, shot with one camera on a soundstage with one set - the inside of a ramshackle bar and guesthouse in suburban Bangkok.

The first hour is hilarious, pure comedy, with lots of music.

It opens with the camera panning around at various people in the bar. A musical soundtrack accompanies the scene - a solo trombone playing some bum notes. The then camera pans over to a corner of the bar, and there's actually a guy studiously playing solo trombone, badly. Meanwhile, there's a pair working on some music at the piano. The singer goes over to the trombonist and asks him to stop playing so he can practice. The guy then breaks out with some horrible, hoarse-sounding European opera, which drives the bar's one customer crazy.

The cavalcade of music hardly lets up. Just as the opera singer departs, a small marching band comes in blowing a Sousa march. A small brass band comes in with a pair of boxers and a boxing match (where the opponents let each other hit them with one punch in turn until one passes out) is held. In the morning, there's shrill Chinese opera. And a guitar-strumming Filipina stops by to sing a beautiful ballad.

The bartender, Noi, is an arm-wrestling champion, and he must frequently defend his title as challengers come into the bar.

Into the mix comes a mysterious woman who gives her name only as Riam, who claims she is 60 years old, has 12 grandchildren and trades opium.

She asks to stay at the hotel, but oddly, the place has only one room and it is taken. After some hysterics and throwing and dragging of suitcases, Riam and the solo lodger, the musically embattled man, who is named Chana, come to an agreement that has the wonderfully sassy Riam sleeping out on the sofa.

"What is this place, the hotel from hell?" asks the man.

No, actually, it's the Paradise Hotel (though "Hell Hotel" is the literal meaning of the film's Thai title, Rongraem Nark).

For the second hour, the story settles into a film noir, as the mystery of Riam and Chana are revealed, when a Thai mafia boss comes to the hotel looking for a quantity of cash and holds Riam and Chana hostage until the money is turned over.

I'm grateful to the Thai Film Foundation for making this available on DVD.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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