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Friday, Jan. 27, 2006

ON THE WILDER SIDE

An ecstasy trip, and it's all perfectly legal



The Uchoten Hotel

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Koki Mitani
Running time: 136 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

News photo
Koji Yakusho (left) in "The Uchoten Hotel"

Koki Mitani clearly admires Billy Wilder -- that role model for generations of bright, clever scriptwriters who yearn to direct.

In his scripts for plays, TV dramas, his own films ("Radio no Jikan," "Minna no Ie") and films directed by others ("Juninin-no Yasashi Nihonjin," "Warai no Daigaku"), Mitani takes a Wilderian delight in snappy dialogue, brisk exposition and clockwork plots with an air of adult sophistication. (No fart jokes, in other words, though he is not above pratfalls.) He also follows Wilder's dictum that "the third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event" with an over-caffeinated earnestness.

The best known for his light comedies ("Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment"), Wilder also made weightier fare ("The Lost Weekend," "Sunset Boulevard"). Mitani's cinematic range is narrower, rarely extending beyond the showbiz milieu he knows so well. "Radio no Jikan (Welcome Back. Mr. McDonald" (1998), "Minna no Ie (Our House)" (2001) and "Warai no Daigaku (University of Laughs)" (2004), all featured scriptwriter heroes, which must be a self-referential record of some sort.

His new ensemble drama, "The Uchoten Hotel (Suite Dreams)," is a departure for him in its real-world setting (if you can call a luxury hotel the real world) and larger-than-life scale. Its model is the 1932 MGM classic "Grand Hotel" -- Mitani's fictional Hotel Avanti is even designed as a "Grand Hotel" tribute, down to the names of its suites (Garbo, Crawford, etc.). He has also written partially disguised parallels to the original, such as Takako Matsu's maid, who resembles Joan Crawford's secretary in her uneasy dealings with a rich, older man, and Koichi Sato's cornered politician, who is like Greta Garbo's stressed-out ballerina in wanting to be alone, and end it all.

The biggest difference between the two films is that "Grand Hotel" was basically a melodrama with comic touches, while "The Uchoten Hotel" is a frothy mix of comedy and drama, at times in the same scene. Also, whereas the earlier film is almost leisurely paced by today's frantic standards, the new one rushes along from scene to scene with barely a pause for breath. It's entertainment as an ingeniously staged, tightly orchestrated three-ring circus, minus the rings -- though there is a magic act, not to mention a lost duck and a clownish elderly gent in white makeup.

This sort of busy-busy show can quickly become confusing or irritating if the ringmaster doesn't know what he's doing, but Mitani masterfully juggles his various story lines and running gags. On the other hand, perhaps distracted by all the managing of traffic, he allows certain of his actors to play to the rafters, while others in the same scene are acting to the camera. The effect is like (hyper) oil and (laid-back) water in a beaker -- the two exist side by side, but never combine. Even so, the show keeps clipping along and the laughs keep coming -- if not in one ring, then in another.

His main attraction is Shindo (Koji Yakusho), the hotel deputy manager, who looks the picture of smooth competence as he and his harried staff prepare for New Year's Eve events, including a reception honoring a deer research association's Man of the Year, a press conference by a prominent politician and the yearend countdown party.

Naturally, things begin to go wrong almost immediately, including a miswritten banner for the reception, a duck belonging to an elderly performer that goes missing and a call girl (Ryoko Shinohara) who keeps slipping through the security net. Shindo and his capable assistant, Yabe (Keiko Toda), rush about putting out these and other fires, and we start to realize they are closer than most married couples.

Meanwhile, the staffers are dealing with their own crises and changes. Kenji (Shingo Katori), a 28-year-old bell boy, decides he's never going to make it as a singer-songwriter and tells Shindo he's quitting his job and going back to his home in the countryside. Then he runs into Naomi (Kumiko Aso), an old classmate who is now a flight attendant. She has, he tells her, realized her longtime dream -- and she begs him not to give up his.

Two of the maids, Hana (Takako Matsu) and Mutsuko (Keiko Horiuchi), are sent to clean the room of a rich man's mistress -- and find it buried in her stuff, strewn about as though a cyclone has hit. Hana, the bolder of the two, is trying on the mistress's jewelry and fur coat, when she is rudely interrupted by the rich man's son, who drags her out on urgent business. He mistakes her for the mistress, having never seen the real thing, and she decides not to disabuse him.

Then the aforementioned Man of the Year, grumpy Professor Hotta (Takuzo Kadono), arrives with his long-suffering wife, Yumi (Mieko Harada). Hotta's mood is not improved when he runs into the call girl, who is thrilled to renew their acquaintance -- and eagerly shows him pictures of their more intimate moments on her cell-phone. Will this brief encounter, the flustered Hotta wonders, result in the disgrace of a lifetime?

Yet another VIP guest is Mutouda (Koichi Sato), an up-and-coming Diet member who plans to make an announcement that will blow the lid off a major scandal -- after which he intends to blow out his brains.

There are other characters, notably Toshiyuki Nishida's famous-but-jaded enka singer, who is looking for inspiration, and You's mousy middle-aged jazz vocalist, who is still looking for a break. In the course of the night, everyone seems to run into (or away from, or over) everyone else, while learning certain truths and making certain decisions. Mitani concludes their stories with his usual proportion of plot twists, but he likes most of his people too much to ruin their New Year's. "The Uchoten Hotel" -- uchoten means "Ecstasy" -- is aptly titled. Not that everyone leaves on a high, but there are smiles all around -- theirs, mine and, if you decide to check in, yours.



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