Alexandra Daddario stars in a decently-crafted, but deeply clumsy and blinkered, look at modern Japanese culture.
Tokyo. The recent past. By day, Margaret (Alexandra Daddario, True Detective) is a self-destructing mess. She’s habitually late to her job as an English pronunciation teacher at a flight attendant school and treats the job with apathy on her good days. By night, she is also a self-destructing mess, but at least she’s sometimes able to have a good time drinking herself into oblivion with her friends, fellow foreigners Ines (Carice van Houten, Game of Thrones) and Liam (Andrew Rothney, The Victim).
When Margaret isn’t drinking, she’s trying to fight off her deep and abiding loneliness with casual sex, although her callous behavior (she springs her masochistic tendencies on at least one partner mid-coitus, leaving him deeply uncomfortable and upset) means that some of these encounters leave her even lonelier than before. A brief encounter with a handsome stranger (Takehiro Kura, The Fighter Pilot) sparks a mutual curiosity. That curiosity leads to a second meeting with the man, named Kazu – who turns out to be a gentlemanly member of the Yakuza. Despite Kazu’s life of crime, the two begin a passionate romance – one whose inevitable end leaves Margaret spiraling into oblivion.
This is not to praise Lost Girls and Love Hotels, though the cast does mostly good work and there are moments of worthy filmmaking. It takes no great pleasure to say that Lost Girls and Love Hotels is the worst film of 2020 I’ve seen so far. The fine performances and striking craft are buried under a great heaping burble of racist Orientalist nonsense, failed stabs at crafting moments that are deep and meaningful, dull sex-negativity, and a final act that goes so hard on the anguish that it faceplants right into being bitterly laughable. Lost Girls and Love Hotels is not a fun bad movie, a la Escape from the Bronx/Escape 2000. It is an infuriatingly bad movie.
Lost Girls and Love Hotels’ orientalism is pervasive. Despite being set in Tokyo and featuring a majority Japanese cast, the movie is focused first and foremost on its white characters. It does not seriously engage with Margaret, Ines, Liam and their friendships in any context beyond their being the main characters. Outside hellos, goodbyes and restaurant orders, English is the film’s language of choice. The first sustained instance of Japanese appears almost an hour into the film’s 97-minute runtime, in the form of a station announcement. It is followed later by the sleazy, drunken flirting of guests at a hostess bar.
Beyond those moments, the primary appearances of Japanese beyond the aforementioned greetings come from Kazu, whose character is written as a combination of love interest and handy-dandy Japanese phrase dictionary. Indeed, outside of Kazu and Margaret’s boss, most of Lost Girls and Love Hotels‘ Japanese characters aren’t really characters. They’re set dressing, whether as Margaret’s enthusiastic students or her increasingly scuzzy hook-ups. Tokyo is not treated as a living, breathing city, but as a place for set pieces to occur to Margaret.
Lost Girls and Love Hotels’ Orientalism is racist, sour, and actively hurts it as a movie. The screenplay, adapted by writer Catherine Hanrahan from her novel of the same name, is aware of the context behind Margaret, Ines, and Liam’s friendship. They’re English-speaking foreigners in Tokyo; a sub-community within a subcommunity, a specific group with history and variety (Ines, for instance, seems to speak Japanese better than either Margaret or Liam). Hanrahan’s script and director William Olsson mostly ignore this despite setting it up. It’s a missed opportunity.
When Kura gets to play Kazu as a person rather than a quote dispenser, he crafts a professional criminal who is ambivalent about his trade but not above taking advantage of its perks. In an early film scene, he boots a band of obnoxious salarymen out of the bar where he and Margaret were getting dinner while she washes up. When she returns, he is clearly relishing the disquieting silence. Unfortunately, the moments where he gets to play Kazu the person rather than Kazu the sexy book of sayings are few and far in between.
Lost Girls and Love Hotels’ Orientalism is racist, sour, and actively hurts it as a movie.
Indeed, even outside its constant Orientalism, Lost Girls and Love Hotels shoots itself in the foot at almost every opportunity. In the moments where Daddario gets to play Margaret as a person, she builds a character who could be a compelling classical anti-hero – a lonely jerk whose jerkiness reinforces her loneliness, even as she’s looking for a way out. But the film piles so much capital-M Misery onto Margaret that the moments where Daddario brings a human touch to her (savoring a cigarette she had to dislodge her window to smoke and being sincerely delighted by a pair of socks Kazu gifts her, for instance) get buried under overblown angst.
Rather than engaging with Margaret’s masochistic kink as a part of her identity (the early scene where she crosses a hook-up’s boundaries by suddenly asking to be choked could be a strong character-building moment, emphasizing her jerkery and self-destructive tendencies), Hanrahan and Olsson demonize it and use it as a signifier that Margaret is slipping into a bad place. Combined with apathetically shot sex scenes, this leaves Lost Girls and Love Hotels’ erotic aspect bitter and boring.
That Lost Girls and Love Hotels squanders potentially interesting stories and mostly good acting in favor of trite fumbling for meaning is disappointing. That it wallows in a racist, Orientalist vision of Tokyo and the Japanese while doing so is enraging. Frankly, Lost Girls and Love Hotels can go eat expired Pop Rocks. If you want to really dig into the experiences of a white American living and working in Japan, I highly recommend reporter Jake Adelstein’s excellent memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.
Lost Girls and Love Hotels premieres on digital and VOD September 18th.