Lost Girls and Love Hotels is a story about loneliness and coping with loneliness the wrong way. Based on the novel of the same name by Catherine Hanrahan, who also pens the script, it stars Alexandra Daddario as Margaret, an American now living in Tokyo in order to escape her depression, which she soon realizes will follow you no matter how far she travels. She has anonymous sex with strangers, drinks with a vengeance, and can’t seem to keep a job. She left her problems back home, yet they’re still haunting her thousands of miles away. And somehow these “solutions” she’s finding don’t work. Go figure.
Margaret becomes involved with a local yakuza, Kazu (Takehiro Hira), who’s engaged to be married to another woman. The two have a tryst that lasts for a while, but can’t last forever. She must try to find happiness sooner or later before she reaches her breaking point. Even within her seemingly serious relationship with Kazu, she struggles with finding her own meaning out of life. It’s the same for us as an audience with this self-indulgent movie.
Daddario isn’t always convincing, but she displays a vulnerability that couldn’t have been easy to achieve. She’s had a long, successful career, but this film finally gives her time to shine, a chance to really flex her chops. Even at her weakest, the actress gives this one everything she’s got. The pieces around her are all set up for her to do so as well.
Director William Olsson stages and executes scenes with the delicacy and patience of an artist who understands technique and symbolism, but offers little in the way of payoff. We understand Margaret’s personality, but never see why her journey is necessary to get to where she’s going. The director seems more interested in creating subtext than he is with connecting the viewer to Margaret. We constantly feel this distance from her, even when she’s “happy” with Kazu. She never gets out of the mud long enough for us to see how love has changed her or to prove that it’s possible for love to change her. And if it can’t, then what has she really lost once it goes away?
This isn’t an immersion of culture or aesthetic. The film doesn’t build the potentially intriguing world of modern Japan well enough around its characters. In fact, by attempting to be overly artistic, it winds up being too selective. There’s a viscosity to Hanrahan’s story that’s incessantly making us feel like we’re left in the dark throughout this purportedly personal movie. The central relationship between Margaret and Kazu is poorly developed. That, or we simply can’t connect to it.
Likewise, Margaret is leading two lives that perfectly contrast with each other: one as a respected English teacher, and the other as a lady of the night. Her day job is supposed to inspire her and lift her up, but the audience feels so disconnected to that part of her life because it’s rarely shown on screen. Thus, any contradiction between these two worlds goes over our heads.
Although relentlessly slow, the film surprisingly doesn’t provide us with a dry or passive viewing experience. It moves at its own consistent pace that can actually be appealing from a cinematic perspective. Despite showing us very little of the promised Tokyo nightlife, Lost Girls and Love Hotels is amusing to look at. Olsson’s direction isn’t exactly as uninspired or self-indulgent as it may appear at first glance. He’s intentional with what he’s doing and what he’s showing us.
In one scene, Margaret is out at dinner with her good friend Liam (Andrew Rothney) to meet his new girlfriend, Louise (Kate Easton). Liam had made passes at Margaret in the past, but she turned him down. As Louise sits down at the table, Olsson switches to a long shot of the characters talking. We can tell that Louise comes from a wholesome family. Her mother calls her at the restaurant to tell her that her sister is pregnant. The far away camera makes us feel a distance for Margaret.
Not only is she now experiencing a detachment from her friend, but a jealousy of his loving and normal relationship – and just maybe a little regret of not accepting Liam’s advances in the first place. Perhaps if she had she wouldn’t be feeling like this; this might even be her – the happy, optimistic girl with dreams just like Louise. However, she’s not Louise. And despite being in a relationship herself, it won’t ever be the same as Liam and Louise’s. It can’t possibly.
Margaret’s tortured soul has become empty. Without Kazu, her emptiness just feels more obvious. But does it matter either way? Their relationship was doomed from the start. There’s a surprising level of depth here for a movie that seems to rely on mise en scene. There’s an introspection that’s trying to surface, but Olsson’s flashes of genius can’t possibly unearth these observations at a consistent enough clip. That would have to be fixed in Hanrahan’s source material: a brooding novel that just might not translate well enough to screen. However, it may all be for nought. Epiphanies never come, and when our lead seems like she’s changed, we’re unsure why or how.
Dripping with subtext and symbolism, Lost Girls and Love Hotels is a movie where the characters already know the secrets. Where the audience is the one trying to solve the riddle. However, some riddles aren’t worth solving. We don’t need to look deep into a frame to decipher where she works. Yet, Olsson makes it so we have to figure out literally everything for ourselves, which might be fun for some, while leading others to believe that perhaps he’s just keeping them busy so they don’t realize just how bored they actually are. How could a movie about modern Japan have ended up so dull?