Michael Kang’s ‘The Motel’ is the film that your adolescent self needed
At 13 years old, Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) is, like any kid his age, struggling with the pains of growing up. But unlike most protagonists in American movies, Ernest is a middle class Chinese American kid who works at his family’s motel business. Michael Kang’s The Motel is told from his perspective. While other kids are playing, Ernest is hard at work–pulling at the heartstrings of thousands of Asian Americans who had to grow up under similar circumstances.
You can’t help but fall in love with Ernest as a character, whether that’s because of his cute childlike mannerisms or his relatable struggle between allegiance to his family’s business and his innocent enjoyment of childhood. We love and empathize with Ernest’s struggles with growing up and want to guide him through it. But throughout The Motel, his often absent, but hardworking family are not there to be those role models. Instead, Ernest’s adolescence is shaped by the questionable characters who eventually come and go from his family’s business. One such person is Sam Kim (Sung Kang), a father-like figure of Asian American masculinity.
Sam’s relationship with Ernest exemplifies the universal struggles of Asian Americans growing up in America. Perhaps seeing himself in Ernest, Sam admits that he had wished his life would end by the time he turned 12–indicating his own rough childhood. Sam takes on the role of both a male role model and a source of companionship for Ernest, taking him out to play baseball and buying him junk food in the middle of night… as well as teaching him about girls. The relationship between Ernest and Sam also nicely touches on the topic of the emasculation of Asian male in American society, revealing how this could be challenged during the precarious years of early adolescence.
Another one of the key plot points of the movie is Ernest’s entry into a writing competition where he receives an honorable mention. Whilst he is proud of such achievements, Ernest’s mother (played by Jade Wu) is not impressed. She is disappointed that he had even bothered to enter into a writing competition in lieu of working at the motel or studying. I couldn’t help but relate to his inability to be appreciated by his family for his individuality, especially when we see him work late night hours at the motel’s reception desk while doing his homework and cleaning motel rooms diligently after school. It appears that he feels as if he’s never understood or valued by his family, who sees his creative endeavors as silly or irresponsible.
By the end of the film, Ernest’s mom finally sees Ernest’s feelings of alienation while working and living at the motel. The ending is open-ended and we don’t know what will happen to Ernest as he continues to spend the remainder of his adolescence at the motel. We can only hope things will get better for him. But children of immigrant parents who have gone through similar struggles know exactly what will come next.
The Motel is an underrated hidden gem, full of complex emotions and themes. It is the movie for the Asian American generation that never had movies that accurately depicted their experiences and reaffirmed the complex emotions they felt growing up. It is a movie that soothes the teenager within us, the coming of age movie we never thought we needed.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
The Motel is being reviewed as part of our series to review “The 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years” as selected by Brian Hu and a team of Asian American film critics. This entry is #18 on that list.
Next week will be Spencer Nakasako’s Refugee (2003)–#16 on that list.