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February 08, 2011

From the Thai Film Foundation: Country Hotel

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Rong ram Narok
Rattana Pestonji - 1957

Country Hotel is a one set wonder, a film that entertains in spite of a premise that defies any kind of logical explanation. The film takes place in a large bar, run by Noi, the self-described world champion arm wrestler. A variety of musicians including a Filipina singer and a Chinese Opera troupe seems to wonder in and out at random, performing a single number for the one or two other people who might be around. The hotel as such is misnamed as there is only one room, taken by a young man, Chana, whose desire for sleep is constantly thwarted. A young women, Riam, shows up, and settles for a the bar's couch when Chana refuses to give up his presumably comfortable bed. An attractive young woman of mystery, Riam insists that she's actually 65 years old, a divorcee with twelve children, and an opium trader. One of the recurring verbal jokes is about the name of the hotel. The hotel is called the "Paradise Hotel". Chana calls it "Hotel Hell", which is actually the translation of the Thai title.

I also suspect that one of the best sight gags was inspired by Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. Prominently displayed in the bar is a giant picture of Noi, announcing two to one odds in his favor as world arm wrestling champion. How good is Noi? He is nonchalantly yawning, casually defeating one challenger after the other. One angry loser hits the portrait, changing the facial expression of the pictured Noi. Correcting the newly distorted mouth, Noi closely hammers at the portrait restoring it to its former glory.

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About halfway through the two hour plus running time, the film shifts into a compact version of The Petrified Forest with the two hotel guests, Noi, and his uncle all held prisoners by a trio of thugs who've shown up to steal a company payroll. Tensions erupt between the gang members overnight. There's also a final showdown with a legendary gangster named Din, who also has his eyes on the payroll.

The best parts of Country Hotel are the comic moments. Rattana Pestonji even has fun at his own expense near the beginning when a handcuffed couple named Yupadee and Songmong show up to grab some free drinks. When Chana and Riam argue about the one hotel room, a solution from It Happened One Night is offered. Pestonji may have played with sound as a demonstration of what can be done with film technology, that the then common practice of live dubbing in Thai movies could not do. The film begins with a man practicing on a trombone quite badly, while nearby, another pair of men are discussing how to perform a song, getting distracted in the process. To explain how innovative Pestonji was in his use of sound, it needs to be understood that while Pestonji was making 35mm sound movies, Thai produced movies for local audiences were usually filmed in 16mm, with local performers, sometimes considered stars themselves, would dub in sound and dialogue while the film was projected, a standard practice as late as 1972.

Filmed in black and white, Pestonji plays with lighting effects in the second half of the story. While everyone is suppose to be sleeping, the room is still except for a swinging lantern. When a gangster, Krai, gets hold of a gun, he is seen as a shadow while shooting one of his victims. Country Hotel was made with a budget that even a poverty row artist like Elmer G. Ulmer would have found stingy. Pestonji creates opportunities to demonstrate his talent during key moments, overcoming the sparseness of the available material.

Country Hotel can be viewed online at Asia Pacific Films.

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Posted by peter at February 8, 2011 08:03 AM