Five westerners wander round Asia in search of themselves, the "real" Asia and escape from problems back home in "Hotel Very Welcome," an episodic charmer that's as laid back as the protags would like to be. Helmer shows real promise for lightly comic, observational filmmaking.

Five westerners wander round Asia in search of themselves, the “real” Asia and escape from problems back home in “Hotel Very Welcome,” an episodic charmer that’s as laid back as the protags would like to be. Kept afloat by a bouncy soundtrack, likable performances and a docu-like feel for backpacker India and Thailand, first feature by Munich film school grad Sonja Heiss is fest-ready with some niche potential. Helmer shows real promise for lightly comic, observational filmmaking.

Quintet of characters are spread over two countries and hardly cross paths, but by cutting back and forth between their stories pic creates a kind of ensemble movie. First on screen is young German Svenja Steifl (Svenja Steinfelder), who’s en route between Washington and Shanghai and misses her connection in Bangkok. Trapped almost the entire time in a hotel room, trying to fix her onward passage by phone, she starts a friendship with a Thai travel agent who can hardly speak English — or do anything else right, either.

Elsewhere in Thailand are two working-class Brits, fast-talking Josh (Ricky Champ) and easygoing Adam (Gareth Llewelyn), who’ve come for beer, babes and beachside barbecues. When Adam runs out of money, and the babes don’t transpire, their friendship starts to hit the rocks in comic ways.

Over in India, chaotic Irishman Leo (TV’s Chris O’Dowd) fries in the desert, gets stoned with a hippy group in Goa and tries to get his head round a personal snafu back home. Also escaping home troubles is German Marion (Eva Loebau, from “The Forest for the Trees” and “The Longing”), who spends her time at a wacko meditation center and grousing by the pool with a fellow German.

Though always lightly comic, film acutely reps a cross-section of westerners who treat Asia as an exotic pleasure park or place to escape. And anyone who’s been trapped on a holiday with a so-called friend or navigated linguistic Babel with travel agents will feel the prick of recognition in the stories of Josh-Adam and Svenja. The running gag of Svenja never losing her cool on the hotel phone also helps knit the film together.

Pic starts to sag in the middle but picks up later on, as Heiss cross-cuts more rapidly between the yarns. Unfortunately for such a fine actress, Loebau’s character is the thinnest developed, but others are fine and neatly played, especially the barbed crosstalk between the two Brits.

Lensing by Nikolai von Graevenitz has a you-are-there feel, and whole film is technically pro on a budget.

Hotel Very Welcome

Germany

Production

A Komplizen Film, ZDF (Das kleine Fernsehspiel), Munich TV & Film School production. (International sales: Scalpel, Paris.) Produced by Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Sonja Heiss. Directed by Sonja Heiss. Screenplay, Heiss, Nikolai von Graevenitz.

Crew

Camera (color), Von Graevenitz; editors, Natali Barrey, Vincent Pluss, Patrick Lambertz; music, Christian Garcia; costumes, Nicole von Graevenitz; sound, Andreas Prescher, Hubertus Rath; sound designer, Daniel Iribarren; associate producer, Dirk Engelhardt. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Perspektive Deutsches Kino), Feb. 13, 2007. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Ricky Champ, Gareth Llewelyn, Eva Loebau, Chris O'Dowd, Svenja Steinfelder, Jinda Khan, Martin Loeschmann, Zorana Musikic, Jado Alagad John, Nathalie Sorrell, Gabriel Kashin. (English, German dialogue)

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