A boarding house in Kuala Lumpur offers a temporary nesting place for an out-of-work reflexologist in Malaysian DV maestro James Lee’s marvelously deadpan third feature “Room to Let.” With its long static takes, minimal action and understated humor, “Room” recalls Tsai Ming-laing, except that Lee’s hero doesn’t shut himself off as much, drifting in and out of his fellow boarders’ rooms for desultory, pause-heavy conversations. Lee’s DV opuses may have several laps to go on the fest circuit before surfacing theatrically or on cable.
Suffering from an unspecified past love affair, young protagonist Berg (Berg Lee) spends his days lounging or leaning against a bed, a chair, a motorcycle or a wall, watching TV, eating instant noodles and smoking (half the pic’s action centers around the lighting of, puffing on or stubbing out of cigarettes).
Insensibly, Berg begins to draw the other roomers to him. They seem obsessed by an artist who used to live in the house and who disappeared three years earlier, perhaps to avoid marrying his cousin.
A horror film without the horror, “Room to Let” sets up a nebulous link between the absent artist and Berg: Weird fragments of the painter’s life begin to infiltrate Berg’s. Berg wanders into a room where the artist’s formerly obese cousin has been kept gagged and tied up for years, ostensibly to force her to lose weight. The now svelte cousin shares a bowl of noodles with Berg, and is never referred to again.
Indeed, all the residence’s semi-slackers seem adrift — liable to float off if not tied down. The house more and more assumes the characteristics of an alternate reality, the path to the front gate figuring as a mysterious portal into another world.
Lee’s austerely compelling compositions infuse the DV image with a rigor generally associated only with 35mm. Jerome Kugan’s music matches pic’s offhandedly evocative tone.