Lost Girls & Love Hotels (film). Directed by William Olsson. Video-on-demand: Various Streaming Services.
William Olsson’s adaptation of Catherine Hanrahan’s semi-autobiographical novel Lost Girls & Love Hotels (September 2020) is a visceral inquiry into trauma, survival and the people who help us see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Although the main character, Margaret’s (Alexandra Daddario) background remains elusive, cinematographer Kenji Katori conveys the duality of her frame of mind through shifting surroundings, offering a riveting sensory experience. In the morning, a disheveled Margaret makes her way to work through a suffocating sea of sharply dressed Tokyo commuters. Arriving just in time, or slightly late, she unemotionally instructs flight attendant hopefuls on the correct pronunciation of the English language. When the washed-out texture of the day makes way for the moody, contrast rich hues of night, Margaret finds herself in a cozy izakaya, alongside fellow expats Ines (Carice van Houten) and Liam (Andrew Rothney). Later, she disappears into Tokyo’s lush nightscape to meet strangers in love hotels. The grip of trauma is strong enough that even dangerous company is preferable to being alone with her thoughts.
Margaret’s self-destructive cycle is momentarily interrupted by a chance encounter with Kazu (Takehiro Hira), a self-assured, enigmatic man, with ties to the criminal underworld. Kazu’s impending marriage doesn’t stop them from rendezvousing in love hotels and eateries, albeit not without consequence. While his attempt at spiritual guidance is initially lost on Margaret, the final scene allows for the cautiously optimistic view that Margaret will eventually make room for a reckoning with her past.
Apart from the exquisite cast that brings this intimate story to life, Lost Girls & Love Hotels shines with compelling symbolism. Take for example, Margaret’s inhabited spaces: Hotels paid by the hour; A one-room apartment in close proximity to a busy train station; The workplace classroom that is a recreation of an aircraft cabin; Her go-to izakaya, where people habitually enter and exit her life. They all point toward the transitoriness of life.
Given the inevitability of change, shouldn’t life be full of opportunities for fresh starts? Kazu and Margaret’s visit to Kiyomizu Temple appears to suggest so. When Kazu takes Margaret to Buddha’s Womb—an illuminated stone that becomes visible following a walk in complete darkness—the message is loud and clear: Margaret alone has the ability to redefine herself and start a new chapter, in which she is no longer controlled by her past.
While the movie succeeds in humanising the aftermath of trauma, it could have done without the occasionally cliché, such as when Kazu mentions that Margaret was unlike other women because she wasn’t easily satisfied. It also stumbles slightly over the climax, in part due to the broadly sketched out characters. Some backstory to Margaret and Kazu could have added context to the final scenes and escaped potential mischaracterisation as a hollow erotic drama.
Given how the story unfolds from the perspective of a traumatised woman, fleshing out Kazu’s character could have balanced out Margaret’s unreliable narrator. For all we know, Kazu could be a highly romanticised version of one of her real lovers, or a complete product of her imagination.
For better or worse, the nature and intensity of Kazu’s feelings for Margaret are never revealed. Margaret’s next steps similarly remain up in the air (pun intended). Frankly, this gritty foray into the dark sides of expat life is unlikely to satisfy those looking for a clear resolution. However, the movie may appeal to viewers, who want to delve into nuances of life’s gray areas, without expecting a definitive conclusion.