April 9, 2007

The Trials and Tribulations of Puberty

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Even though my teacher assigned The Color Purple in my high school AP English class, he expressed his disdain for the novel, criticizing it for what he saw as a deliberate attempt to take on as many hot-button political issues as possible. I guess the same could be said for The Motel, a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old Chinese-American kid named Ernest that deals with themes of growing up, poverty, racism, cultural assimilation, the generation gap, et al. This criticism never really held any water with me, however, for just as there really are poor black lesbians in the world, so too are there Chinese-American kids struggling with issues of poverty, puberty and racism, and their stories need to be told.
And what a doo-wop of a story it is, with director Michael Kang attempting to harmonize said issues into a seamless symphony of life for young Ernest, conducted with humor and pathos. It isn’t quite seamless, but then again, who could expect him to pull it off without a hitch? In The Motel, we are given enough of a sample of each issue — with a heavy rhythm section of the trials and tribulations of puberty — to be able to applaud Kang’s efforts and simultaneously laugh and cry at his touching, if jumbled, piece.
Ernest spends his days at school where he is picked on by his classmates and his nights at his family’s motel, languidly shuffling from room to room with cleaning cart in tow. He lives with his little sister, mother and grandfather at their rundown motel in the middle of nowhere. His dad left home when Ernest was young, and he is desperate for a father figure. Ernest’s mother is a tough, old-fashioned caretaker, who’s always telling Ernest that “life’s not fair” or that getting an honorable mention in a writing contest is “worse than losing.”
This takes its toll on Ernest, who harbors a dream of becoming a writer and who wants to attend the award ceremony for the contest he secretly entered, even if he did just get an honorable mention. It is a rough time for Ernest, who at thirteen years old is ascending the heights of puberty, on his way to becoming a man. Living at the motel seems to expedite this process, as he can’t help but hear the mysterious moans emanating from the rooms, or pick up the Oriental Porn magazine lying under a bed.
Soon, he meets a young free-wheeling Korean-American, Sam, who stumbles into the lobby drunk with a prostitute and pays with a defunct credit card. Sam and Ernest strike up an unlikely friendship, and Sam takes it upon himself to teach him the rites of passage to becoming a man, which apparently include throwing chicken wings into the grass and driving on the highway at thirteen years old. What Ernest would really like Sam to help him with, though, is to earn the love of his crush, 15-year-old Christine, who works at a Chinese buffet down the road. Christine, however, just wants to be friends, and Ernest doesn’t take this very well. Frustrated with his family, friendless and rejected by the girl he likes, Ernest falls under the spell of puberty, giving way to existential malaise and angst.
There are some remarkable scenes in The Motel, filled with quiet power and knowledge, like when Sam and Ernest stop in the middle of the road after a midnight road trip and Sam tells Ernest how he used to dream that God would take him out at twelve years old, so he could “live a full life” and not suffer the “insult” of existence thereafter. Or the final moving scene, when Ernest comes back after a long reckless night of absence and sees his mom standing in the doorway, her eyes full of hurt, disappointment and love.
I just wish the character of Sam were fleshed out a little more — he’s never given a truly believable motive for his tutelage or complete background. And while Jeffrey Chyau does a passable job as Ernest, a less flat, insipid actor could have taken the character much further.
But The Motel is still a moving, funny portrait of life for a 13-year-old Chinese-American, and for us all, for that matter. Kang nicely captures the premature world-weariness of pubescent youth, with all its awkward steps and emotional battlefields, but he never becomes too sentimental. Sure, the tantalizing pure possibility of life at thirteen years old in a way makes us all want to be that young again and experience the world with wide-eyed wonder. But then again, as the advertisements for the movie say, puberty sucks.
Cornell Cinema will be showing The Motel Wednesday, April 11 at 7:00PM in WSH with an introduction by professor Thuy Tu.