Friday, April 24, 2020

Masquerade Hotel

This is another movie that was either playing in Hong Kong when I visited last year or was being advertised, so I included it in a DDDHouse order when it came out there and kind of left it there on the shelf until I had a night where it slotted in well. It is, it turns out, a pretty nice quarantine movie - orderly and light, giving you a couple of hours in a luxury hotel without actually making you feel bitter that you can't go there for real.

I'm mildly surprised to see that it is based on a novel by the same author as The Devotion of Suspect X. Both, in their way, are mysteries that avoid the typical whodunit structure, although perhaps in opposite ways, with Devotion putting the solution right up front while Masquerade pushes the actual crime off as far as possible. Keigo Higashino appears to be hugely popular in his native Japan and much of the rest of East Asia - there are Chinese and Korean adaptations of Suspect X - but his work has only made it to the U.S. in piecemeal fashion. He's not limited to mysteries, either; I kind of suspect that I was able to get a copy of a recent Takashi Miike film that played Fantasia but didn't land here otherwise because it was based on a sci-fi/fantasy novel of his, Higashino is popular in Hong Kong, and therefore they made a Blu-ray of Laplace's Witch which just happens to be Region A and have English subtitles. Same with this one, which doesn't seem to have any American distribution either.

It's fun, though, especially for those that enjoy the sort of mystery which steps back from the life-and-death stakes a bit. It's worth noting that the Blu-ray on DDDHouse is roughly the same price as the DVD on Amazon, with shipping the major difference (and the fact that DDDHouse may not yet be shipping to the USA again, what with Covid-19 making international trade tricky). I advise buying a lot movies so that you've got plenty on your shelf to work through while you stay at home and so that the shipping cost per disc isn't too extreme.

Masukarêdo hoteru (Masquerade Hotel)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Masquerade Hotel is not, technically speaking, a murder mystery so cozy that there's no actual murder, but it's not far off. It's a whodunit built around a posh location, sleuths so focused on the business at hand that they are really only almost flirting, and a healthy dose of clues, codes, and red herrings, one which is all-in on the way mysteries can be puzzles and not terribly concerned with them being thrillers. It's not a route many films go these days, and it makes Masquerade Hotel a light, entertaining treat.

In it, a serial killer has been at work in Japan, their method varied and victims unconnected except for the cards featuring encoded coordinates for where the next killing will take place, with the fourth pointing at the Hotel Cortesia Tokyo. The police contact management and manage to place a number of officers undercover, most prominently Kosuke Nitta (Takuya Kimura), whose language skills and observational acumen place him at the front desk with concierge Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa). Her instincts to accommodate customers immediately clash with his suspicious nature, and there are a lot of people coming in and out of the hotel who could be either the next victim or the killer: Demanding guests Takahiko Ayabe (Gaku Hamada), Ono (Takashi Sasano), Kurihara (Katsuhara Namase); red-flagged potential thief Furuhachi (Masahiro Takashima); blind Yoko Katagiri (Takako Matsu); bride-to-be Keiko Takayama (Atsuko Maeda); and Eriko Anno (Nanao), who may be fleeing a stalker. And then there's Nohse (Fumiyo Kohinata), Nitta's former partner who may not officially be part of the investigation but is going to check in anyway.

There are more people checking into and out of the hotel, and as a result in and out of the story, and given how screenwriter Michitaka Okuda and director Masayuki Suzuki take pains to keep the focus on the hotel rather than the previous three murders, there are times when those who approach a mystery by trying to solve a puzzle might get frustrated. It is the job of those telling a mystery story to keep which bits are important and which are not obscure, of course, but the set-up here almost looks a little too random, like the storytellers don't intend to use sleight-of-hand to keep the audience focused on the wrong thing but by giving viewers no reason to think anything specific could be particularly important. Eventually, they do manage to push things forward in ways that are more fair than not - a clever shift in perspective makes the larger mystery less random while still keeping the focus on the hotel, and bits of unrelated stories reflect each other in ways that work beyond putting an idea into one's head, since they kind of get at the idea of why people come to hotels at odd moments.

That's a fair direction of attack, in large part because Masquerade Hotel is as much a demonstration of there being value in work and business that can seem entirely commercial as it is a mystery. It is not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon to have this sort of pride in one's job that even guests' services at a fancy hotel can come across as a calling, but from this side of the Pacific it's a level of earnestness that can easily tip over into mockery. It's impressive just how well Masami Nagasawa plays Yamagishi as genuinely devoted to making sure that guests have a peaceful stay and that the hotel runs smoothly; she is never just her job but she and the filmmakers are very careful that her moments of being funny or incisive or frustrated with Nitta never run counter to that attitude. She's in a technically-subservient position but never seems to put herself below anybody.

It means Takuya Kimura can't be too abrasive in serving as a complement; his (initially) opposing attitude shouldn't often be seen as mean. He handles the opposing bits of the character well - Nitta is the kind of smart that's both well-rounded and susceptible to blind spots, and as a result Kimura has to swing back and forth between being pushily confident and caught flat-footed without becoming a joke. He and Yamagishi have fun chemistry that is not pushed to be romantic when it doesn't need to be, and they've got a nice ensemble behind them, from Fumiyo Kohinata grinning just enough to make the audience wonder what he's really up to as Nohse to Nanao's believable tension as Anno.

Some are a little broader than ideal, and it's not just the performances; Suzuki has a tendency to let things sprawl. There are a lot of characters, and more than a few scenes that maybe go on a bit too long, right down to an epilogue that feels both unnecessary and obligatory, including a sequence that feels like it could be a title sequence but isn't quite stylized enough, and it adds up to a movie that's a bit flabby. It's a great-looking movie - the lobby set is a multi-level beauty and a neat contrast to the behind-the-scenes, areas, right down to the police setting up card tables and folding chairs in the basement. There's a tendency to lovingly examine a room which, when paired with Naoki Sato's chamber-music score, doesn't feel tacky, but maybe a little obvious, the very first thing that came to mind when someone in the production described the Cortesia as "classy".

That's not exactly a fault in this sort of film, of course; part of the appeal of this sort of mystery is that there is an order to things and that said order is good. It's an appealing, comfortable mystery to sink into for a couple of hours, and I certainly would not mind seeing the Higashino's second "Masquerade" novel adapted by this group as well.

Also on EFilmCritic

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