Hiroshi Okuhara, while having made various successful films in the past (Timeless Melody (1999), Nami/Wave (2001), Aoi Kuruma (2004)), remains rather unknown for the international audiences. Maybe his adaptation of Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris can finally earn him the recognition he deserves.
Somewhere in Taiwan, near the coast, lies Hotel Iris, a seaside establishment run by a Japanese woman (Nahana) and her half-Taiwanese daughter Mari (Lucia). One night, Mari hears a female cry. She goes to investigate and witness a distraught woman in a red dress escape a violent middle-aged widower and translator (Masatoshi Nagase). Her initial shock quickly transforms into a fascination with this man. When she, by chance, sees him walking on the street, she decides to follow him and find out more about him.
Hotel Iris is, without a doubt, a romance narrative, but a kind of romance narrative that, while being sensual and erotic, rejects any kind of romanticization. This rejection is most evidently felt in the fact that Okuhara, with this narrative, evokes the very fact that the relational past of subjects impacts the possibility and appearance of sexual attraction between a man and a woman.
Before the sexual romance between Mari and the middle-aged man blossoms, another relation forms the focus of the narrative: the relation between Mari and her mother. This relation is marked by a tension. This tension is underlined by the need Mari feels to lie and to keep certain things unsaid (e.g. meeting the middle-aged man). But what is so problematic about their relationship? What’s problematic, in our view, is that the mother leaves no space for her daughter’s subjectivity in her (controlling) interactions with her daughter (e.g. the combing, the scolding, … etc.). Mari is, in other words, imprisoned in the function of daughter by her too motherly mother. Lying, keeping things for herself and, later, manipulating others are, in this respect, subtle attempts, hidden acts of defiance, to create some distance between herself and her mother.
Some spectators might wonder if Mari’s urge to follow this violent middle-aged widower is also a way to oppose her mother. In a certain sense it is, but in our view the main reason why she follows him is because the violent scene she witnessed confronts her not only with the question of sexuality – the sexual bond between man and woman – but also with, within this field of sexuality, the question of her femininity. In other words, Mari feels that she can find something of an answer to the riddle of her own sexuality/femininity by (sexually) interacting with this middle-aged man.
Yet, while their sexual relationship has its sadomasochistic sides – with master-slave allures, it is not unimportant to note that their sexual interactions remain focused on generating pleasure, on letting eros blossom in the female body. The rough violent way the middle-aged man handles her female body might scare her in the beginning, his sexual roughness also attracts her and, even, arouses her. In a certain sense, Mari gives her body to this violent male other to let him discovers and dictate her own femininity for her. She lets him explore her erogenous zones (e.g. skin) and discover the limits of her own feminine enjoyment. The gift of her body to his sexual roughness allows her – and this most important element – to experience herself as something else than just the daughter of her mother; it allows Mari to experience herself as a feminine sexual being (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2).
We should also not remain blind to the fact that, in relation to Mari, the middle-aged man attains a fatherly position. While we’re not going to provide any far-fetched interpretation – e.g. she seeks to love her father through the middle-aged man, there is within Hotel Iris enough visual evidence to state that the past dynamic between Mari and her father structures the relational dynamic between her and her beloved. Not only are both relations marked by Mari’s insecurity – Does he love me or not? – but both relationships are defined by an element of violence.
The elegant and sensitive finale does not provide a simple form of closure but adds a layer of complexity that not only deepens the various characters, but also renders them slightly opaquer for the spectator (Narra-note 3). While the spectator can grasp something of Mari’s logic – as explained above – one can only vaguely discern, without finding any conclusive proof, the logic that animates the middle-aged man or the dynamic between this man and his mute ‘nephew’.
The composition of Hotel Iris stands out due to its dynamism and its artful use of cinematographical movement. Okuhara’s composition pleases the spectator with pleasing temperate spatial movement and the artful fluid tracking movement. What also heightens the composition’s visual pleasure are those shots that expertly combine fixed moments with dynamic moments. Fixed shots, for that matter, are utilized to frame interactions between characters or acts by certain characters but also to establishing the context of a given scene (i.e. establishing shots). Many of these shots (plus some non-establishing static shots) please the spectator by presenting him with beautiful scenes of nature (beaches, … etc.). Other elements that provide visual pleasure are the evocative use of imagery and the beautiful compositional use of lightning (Music-note 1).
The performance that stands out in this narrative is, without a doubt, Lucia’s. She does not only captivate the spectator by her mesmerizing presence, but also by bringing Mari with much subtly and naturalism to life.
Hotel Iris, due to its content-matter, might not be for everyone, but who dares to give it a chance will find an artfully composed erotic narrative that plays with the well-known psychoanalytic fact that the relational past of subjects impacts the possibility and appearance of sexual attraction between a man and a woman.
Narra-note 1: The radical importance of the sexual encounters for Mari is underlined by disappointment she shows when her middle-aged beloved refuses to give her what she desires/needs. It is, in fact, only during the sexual act that she can truly feel her femininity.
Narra-note 2: How to understand the image of Iris, the goddess of rainbows? For Mari, Iris functions as an image of someone who can fly anywhere she wants. In contrast to Iris, Mari is not able to fly anywhere she wants.
The image of the rainbow as the bridge connecting the world of heaven (gods) and earth (mortals) is represented by the bridge that connects the little island, where the middle-aged man lives, with the mainland, where Hotel Iris is. The point is that by taking this bridge Mari, as Iris, can leave her land of imprisonment and venture into the Other land, the land of her own femininity and sexuality.
Narra-note 3: The narrative is, furthermore, narrative decorated with a side-narrative about murders, e.g.the murder of Mari’s alcoholic father, the murder of the whore in the red dress, … etc.
Yet do not expect this side-narrative to unfold in a full-blown mystery narrative. These murders, while influencing the main narrative thread, mostly remain a vague presence in the background, only rearing its head when its narratively necessary.
Music-note 1: The string pieces do not only highlight the emotional import of certain scene, but also strengthen the poetic beauty of the cinematographical dynamism.