A feature-length sex-a-thon winds up feeling like the wrong kind of grind in Eric Khoo’s “In the Room,” a bittersweet carnal medley that floats across several decades’ worth of brief encounters at a once-glorious, slowly declining Singaporean hotel. Seeking to capture the evanescence of sexual connection in a place where love and commitment hold little sway, this hermetic and increasingly melancholy omnibus (call it “Lust in Translation”) holds attention easily enough with its hot-and-heavy softcore fumblings enacted by an attractive young pan-Asian cast. But the familiarity of the situations and the general awkwardness of the writing and performances conspire to keep the earth at a standstill throughout. Although the sheet-clutching imagery is fairly tame by festival standards (some female nudity aside, there’s a lot of moaning and indistinct writhing), censorship trouble may well force trims or limit exposure in Asian territories, not least in Khoo’s native Singapore.
Khoo can be a dexterous weaver of vignettes, on the evidence of his 2005 festival favorite, “Be With Me,” and his striking but little-seen 2011 animated feature, “Tatsumi.” (His sublime new short film, “Cinema,” is already a highlight of the fall festival circuit; it screened recently at Telluride and will be seen in Busan as part of the Singaporean omnibus “7 Letters.”) But the magic proves rather more elusive with “In the Room,” which tries in vain to unlock something universally resonant with its six tales of loneliness, longing and thwarted desire (five of them scripted by Jonathan Lim, and one of them by Andrew Hook). While each of the stories is set in a different time frame, all of them play out in the same durable love nest, Room 27, at the fictional Singapura Hotel.
The first vignette, set in the 1940s and shot in nostalgic black-and-white (by d.p. Brian Gothong Tan), introduces us to the hotel in its proud heyday, albeit one that’s about to be tarnished by the looming Japanese occupation. On the eve of the invasion, a British expat (Daniel Jenkins) bids a solemn farewell to his Chinese male lover (Koh Boon Pin), whose occupation supplies the unexpected meaning behind the short’s cheeky title, “Rubber.” In addition to supplying a curious, ambivalent metaphor for the ties that can develop between a colony and an imperialist power, the men’s illicit relationship sets the tone for a picture in which almost every coupling is tinged with layers of shame and secrecy.
The one exception emerges in the film’s energetic second yarn, a loud, mannered, brightly colored ’60s-set comedy named after a common slang term for a woman’s genitalia. It’s that very body part that fiery diva Orchid (Josie Ho) tries to teach her fellow sexpots to exercise to the max, so as to maintain the upper hand with the men who seek to dominate them. Orchid demonstrates the exceptional prowess of her own nether-regions by shooting Ping-Pong balls across the room, crushing a (literal) banana, and having her way with the swaggering mob boss who realizes, too late, that he’s picked the wrong woman to screw around with.
The third story, “Listen,” brings the proceedings decidedly back to earth with a fictional tribute to the Singaporean author and musician Damien Sin, who died in 2011 of a heroin overdose (and to whom the film is dedicated). It’s New Year’s Eve sometime in the ’70s, and for a popular musician named Damien (Ian Tan), the thrill of living it up with his bandmates and groupies is clearly gone. While a boozy orgy commences in Room 27, he steps out into the corridor and has a sweet, sad encounter with a young maid, Imrah (Nadia AR). The tale doesn’t end happily, but the bond that develops between these two souls is meant to be a profound one; theirs is the only relationship here that would seem capable of transcending the boundaries of time and space.
From that point onward, “In the Room” becomes a sort of free-floating ghost story, in which both Damien and Imrah hover around the boundaries of the hotel room like watchful, benevolent spirits while the individual stories advance slowly into the present day. In “Change,” a Thai transgender woman (Netnaphad Pulsavad) meets with her lover (W. Leon Unaprom) the night before she’s due to go under the knife. In “Search,” a married Japanese woman (Show Nishino) has passionate sex with her Singaporean lover (Lawrence Wong), who wants more of an emotional commitment than she’s prepared to offer; their conversation over post-coital room service makes clear that this will be their final tryst. And in the film’s most trying episode, “First Time,” a promiscuous, emotionally battered Korean girl (Choi Woo Shik) shares the room with her virginal male friend (Kim Kkobbi), a surefire recipe for sexual frustration all around.
For those who inhabit it, the room becomes a luxurious retreat from reality, but also a place of heartache and loss. By the end of “In the Room,” the Singapura is a crumbling ruin, buried somewhere amid the bowels of a city now dominated by glittering skyscrapers — a metaphor for the relationships that have transpired fleetingly within its walls, only to fester and fade away as time marches onward. The sadness with which Khoo regards these lovers bears a faint (and not entirely unwelcome) streak of moralism, particularly in an, ahem, climactic sequence in which the characters are shown trying to assuage the pain of regret, juxtaposed with less-than-flattering images of, say, a prostitute with an abusive john, or a man about to indulge in an act of necrophilia.
But the film’s conceptual poignancy isn’t matched by the execution onscreen. The performers are limited to a handful of affecting moments apiece, hamstrung by dialogue that too often feels banal and on-the-nose; a treacly score merely underscores the characters’ obvious connections even further. Absent any onscreen text indicating the exact time frame, it falls to production designer Arthua Chua and costume designer Meredith Lee to delineate eras through subtle period detailing, and they’ve pulled it off it in artful fashion. For all its spatial and visual confinement, “In the Room” never looks less than striking even as it sinks into dolorous mush.