A middle-aged man (Surapol Poonpiriya) picks up a teenage girl (Prapamonton Eiamchan) from school. The way he’s smiling at her, you’d think he’s her adoring father. Suddenly he punches her for swearing and expects her to give him a handjob.
He drives her to his shabby “love hotel,” Motel Mistress. Tot Niyom (Wissanu Likitsathaporn) is the caretaker there. He spends his days cleaning the rooms, setting up peephole cameras and chatting on the phone with his girlfriend.
Tot also watches TV. It’s all over the news: A celebrity named Tul Triparb (Vasuphon Kriangprapakit), a once-famous child star, has gone missing. Apparently Tul believes he is an alien, or maybe just wishes to be abducted by aliens. Tul happens to visit the motel to complete his transformation. His apotheosis, perhaps.
Meanwhile, the girl from the car, Laila, goes through a variety of abusive roleplays at the hands of the lecherous Sopol (Poonpiriya), with equally degrading punishments if she does something “wrong.” However, it turns out she has plan. She asks her friend Vicky (Katareeya Theapchatri) to get involved. This being the realm of the revenge thriller, the tables can quickly turn on the perpetrator.
For the first hour, Motel Mist is like a blend of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” and Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty,” with its seedy Thai underworld setting meeting decadent female objectification. The second half ramps ups the absurdity, threatening to stray in the territory of Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock”; but it never shakes its slowness or its weirdness, and feels more like it’s aiming for something close to David Lynch’s recent “Twin Peaks” series.
Actual sexual content is limited. There is no nudity in the film except that which we glimpse in pornographic movies on the TV. Maybe it’s an issue of Thailand’s censorship, but I like to think there is a deliberate statement about objectification in this decision. There’s a difference between a film that exploits and a film about exploitation, and I am convinced that Motel Mist is the latter, however troubling its S&M images.
There is an underlying theme of how normalization can inure us to evil. At one point Tot interviews himself in the mirror. He speaks of wanting to be a fire dancer on the beach as a way of attracting women. Suddenly he checks himself, fearful of being seen as “politically incorrect” — which is somewhat ironic, given his current occupation. It points to the way that we are capable of compartmentalizing our sense of morality depending on how accustomed to our situation we’ve become.
The film does a good job of portraying the mundanity of systematized abuse. The lack of histrionics is skin-crawlingly plausible. Laila’s robotic acceptance of the ritualized violence against her is only broken when the perpetrator finds some new form of humiliation. Writer-director Prabda Yoon’s objective style holds subtle power and also, crucially, doesn’t venture to titillate the viewer.
But to what end? Here’s where the problem lies. Motel Mist is subject to the same limitation of any female-powered revenge thriller: Because the emancipation is only from the immediate abusive situation, the vicarious thrill can only be in the catharsis of violent revenge. Motel Mist is too ambitious and strange and silly to offer such simple pleasures, instead disappearing down a hopelessly ambiguous third act path.
The Tul subplot is especially perplexing, not to mention patience-testing. At one point he literally watches paint dry. He has a predilection for addressing the camera while contorting his body and twisting his face. He seems capable of overcoming the limitations of corporeal space. He can kill others purely through touch. At their worst these sequences are like bizarre micro-art projects stumbled upon on YouTube.
However flawed and overreaching, it’s rare for a feature debut to feel so of-a-piece. Yoon is a promising Thai filmmaker who went on to make the equally poised “Somewhere From Nowhere.” Motel Mist is an extremely slow film, with beautifully-framed and mostly static shots which linger for minutes at a time. To mix it up, Yoon throws in some highly stylized montage sequences, usually involving Laila and Vicky dancing about in kinky costumes, and always in slow motion.
Motel Mist is not even a question mark of a movie — it’s virtually a blank sheet, such is its resistance to offering easily-satisfying genre conventions. It is as slippery as a sex toy and as esoteric as anything by the filmmakers who inspired it. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it, but it does possess a consistent, transfixing oddness that holds the attention. And any film with the power to intrigue should not be ignored.