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Secret Hot Spring Resort: Starfish at Night
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by Jay Seaver

"Twenty-five years and a world away from 'Boogie Nights'."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The "Behind the Pink Curtain" series that is currently playing repertory theaters and bookings in the west (including Montreal's Fantasia Festival) is a testament to how certain types of porn have a degree of acceptance in mainstream Japan, or at least aren't very far in the fringes. There are limits to that, of course, and it wasn't always the case. 1970's "Secret Hot Spring Resort: Starfish at Night" is a look back at a previous generation of dirty movies, with all the skin included, of course.

There were no pink theaters in postwar Japan, or at least not in the small towns. Thus, as with the stag films in America, pornographers would travel from town to town, shooting and selling stills, arranging underground screenings of their movies, maybe filming, all while avoiding the law and, if not affiliated, the yakuza. The folks just blowing into town are a small, independent unit: Jiro Hisao (Jun Yoshida) is the director and sometime male lead, Suzume (Reiko Ohtsuki) is the female lead, and Torikin (Yuichi Minato) the guy who handles the business dealings. Hisao has ambitions to shoot a more ambitious samurai film, with a story as memorable as the sex, and Torikin sets out to recruit some local talent, including Kayo (Tomomi Sahara), a sweet maid at the resort who is drawn to the camera, though she's assured Suzume will be her body double.

If director Mamoru Watanabe and writer Atsushi Yamatoya (writing as Wataru Hino) have any particular nostalgia for this era, it is well-tempered with realism. Jiro and Suzume live hand to mouth and mere steps ahead of trouble, and although it's not always referred to directly, both are starting to feel the squeeze porn puts on people of advancing age: Suzume may keep herself in fine shape, but lines are starting to show up on her face; Jiro may consider himself an artist, but he's not building any sort of reputation. Torikin is younger and doesn't intend to stay small-time for nearly as long as Jiro and Suzume have, especially not for little things like loyalty and honesty. And Kayo is obviously in for more than she bargains for.

Like many pink films of its generation, Secret Hot Spring Resort is shot in a partial-color format, although Watanabe is a little more creative than some other directors in how he uses his limited supply of color stock. Several of the sex scenes get the full-color treatment, yes, but others remain in monochrome; establishing shots from Jiro's film-within-a-film sometimes feature a clear blue sky even if no-one is getting it on. It's a choice that shows that Watanabe and Yamatoya have ambitions beyond just titillation; that's there, but there's also a story about the relationship between the artist and his muse, as well as how the attendant dealings can be dirtier than anything the artist creates.

There are undoubtedly better movies on those subjects, but the cast of this one does better than one might expect from the medium. Reiko Ohtsuki, for instance, has a good take on her character; she's tired and somewhat disillusioned, but her complaints always refer to the immediate situation. She doesn't talk about getting out because she probably doesn't know anything else. Jun Yoshida's Jiro is much the same way, although Yoshida plays him as teetering on the edge of something; his soul is suffering in a way that the practical Suzume's is not (at least not yet). The layer of charm Yuichi Minato puts over Torikin's callow interior seems sincere enough, which makes his amorality a bit more interesting. Tomomi Sahara hits the right notes as well, youthfully curious and cautious at first, destroyed later.

That's somewhat weighty stuff for a skin flick, probably too much so. Though there are certainly a number of moments where the audience can just enjoy the show (so to speak), there's enough darker material to make it not particularly arousing in retrospect. Even if one of the film's centerpieces wasn't a rape, there's still an air of desperation to many of the scenes, and the sex all too often isn't an escape from despair, but resignation to it. Is that really a turn-on?

Of course, that's the irony of series like this; the entries are are often selected for how they pushed the limits of their genre rather than how effective they are within them. That often leaves movies like "Secret Hot Spring Resort" somewhere in between: Not great drama, or great porn, but a genuinely interesting fusion of the two.

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originally posted: 08/15/09 08:03:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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