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In the Room | 2015 TIFF Review

If These Walls Could Catcall: Khoo’s Sex Omnibus Fails to Tantalize

Singaporean auteur Eric Khoo returns with his latest feature, In the Room, a decades spanning, multi-character chamber piece revolving around the inhabitants of a single hotel room and the private moments of love and intimacy that transpire there. Less titillating than the sum of its parts, documenting various acts across a range of orientations with a sort of unhurried inevitability, only the aural cues of creaky bed springs manage to wrench any tactile examination of humankind’s basic physical co-mingling.

Conservative, even rather rigid in its visual purveyance of sexual practices and traditional interactions, in Khoo’s preferred universe of multiple storylines, perhaps this time around he casts too many stories into the pool (unlike his celebrated 2005 title Be With Me, which consists of three separate stories), since despite the use of a unifying thread, the film’s melancholy air is basted too haphazardly over a revolving circus of characters.

Six separate stories unfold within the confines of Room 27 at the fictional Singapura Hotel in Singapore. An Englishman and a local Singaporean men bid adieu as the political climate dictates the former’s return to England. Next, a couple takes a moment to enjoy one another before the permanence of one’s sex reassignment surgery. A married Japanese woman and a Singaporean man engage in the limitations of their hushed rendezvous, while a party of 1970s musicians binge on drugs, booze, and liquor during a night of revelry resulting in the death of the songwriter, a man who returns to haunt the room.

Hardly reaching the intimate or sexual depths of something like The Realm of the Senses (1976), which the film’s provocative description would seem to align itself with, this instead feels like Roger Vadim’s version of If These Walls Could Talk (and it’s overreaching provocation feels an awful lot like the cardboard titillation of Vadim’s Circle of Love).

Hong Kong actress Josie Ho is the most notable cast member amongst a mixture of newcomers and other various character actors, though by default the real standout is Ian Tan, portraying musician and author Damien Sin (who died of an overdose in 2011 and who this feature is dedicated to), his ghost haunting the remaining inhabitants of the room.

When the material is allowed to speak for itself, there’s a high degree of bittersweet melancholy to In the Room, couples interchangeable to an increasingly dilapidated private space. Visually, DoP Brian Gothong Tan (who worked on Khoo’s segment in the 2015 omnibus Letters) does an excellent job of indicating changes in period and mood via lighting and framing, while Arthur Chua’s production design should also be credited for substantial cues with these timeframe lapses.

The outside world is sometimes referenced a bit too bluntly in several moments of dialogue, and first time screenwriter Jonathan Lim (who wrote five of the six scenarios, while Andrew Hook gets credit for the other) doesn’t seem intent on crafting characters rather than mere multiple formulations of trysts, and In the Room makes its point well before the final frames. The world is a mound of writhing flesh, it seems, but then Khoo railroads the film with Christine Sham’s (who served as composer in Be With Me) saccharine sweet score, with lends the film a corny pallor, something enhanced by Sin’s fascination with the maid who is assigned to clean the room over the encroaching decades until she too expires.

Reviewed on September 15th at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival – Contemporary World Cinema Program. 90 Mins.

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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