Livia Ungur
The film brings Livia Ungur's character to the real-life Romanian ranch that is home not only to Hotel Dallas—a replica of the TV show's Southfork Ranch—but also to a scale model of the Eiffel Tower.

Film Review: Hotel Dallas, Sherng-Lee Huang ’02 and Livia Ungur

Sherng-Lee Huang and Livia Ungur
(l to r) Sherng-Lee Huang ’02 and Livia Ungur

Written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Sherng-Lee Huang ’02 and Livia Ungur, Hotel Dallas is a tough movie to categorize: part documentary, part fiction, part personal essay, part art installation, it takes on an impressive range of styles and subjects in just 74 minutes, anchored by the relationship between Ungur’s native Romania and the American TV series Dallas. One of the few bits of American pop culture to legally make it to Romania during Communist rule in the 1980s, Texas-set nighttime soap opera Dallas had a significant influence on Ungur and her fellow Romanians, and Hotel Dallas is an impressionistic exploration of that influence, as well as a meditation on the past and future of Romania itself.

Patrick Duffy
Patrick Duffy (Dallas’ Bobby Ewing)

Ungur and actual Dallas star Patrick Duffy are the only performers billed in the opening credits, and they share a sort of cross-cultural connection, as Duffy, possibly playing his Dallas character Bobby Ewing, appears as a disembodied voiceover joining Ungur (who’s decked out like a cartoonish Romanian misconception of a cowgirl) at the real Hotel Dallas in the Romanian city of Slobozia. Ungur’s father, Nicu Ungureanu, plays Romanian oligarch Ilie Alexandru, who built the Hotel Dallas as a replica of Dallas’ Southfork Ranch, and fashioned himself as “the J.R. Ewing of Romania.” Huang later shows up in the movie as a younger version of Alexandru, who died in 2010; both movie versions deliver their backstory in the form of songs.
Nicu Ungureanu
Nicu Ungureanu as the man who built the Hotel Dallas.

That kind of stylized distancing effect applies to almost all of the movie’s documentary elements, to the point at which it’s difficult to tell what is “real.” Ungur and Duffy (or Bobby, or a character known as Your Name Here) travel across Romania, visiting Ungur’s family (played by actors, who then also give documentary interviews about the experience of watching Dallas in Romania), moving backward across time, heading toward Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi’s renowned Sculptural Ensemble. Young Romanian kids re-enact iconic Dallas scenes rewritten to include references to Romanian history and Ungur’s own life. At times, Ungur and Huang pull back to show themselves directing various scenes. The movie is constantly drawing attention to its own existence as a created piece of art.

Larry Hagman
Larry Hagman (J.R.Ewing), who appears by way of a commercial clip.

Even if it can be a bit inscrutable, especially compared to something like the recent documentary Chuck Norris vs. Communism, which took a much more straightforward approach to exploring the impact of American pop culture on 1980s Romania, Hotel Dallas is always emotionally honest, grounded in Ungur’s unique experiences as an artist and an expat.

Some of its detours can be frustrating (the ending features substantial footage from the 1947 John Wayne/Gail Russell Western Angel and the Badman, to somewhat baffling effect), but others are quietly moving, including a long stretch about the difficulties of life as an artist, as Ungur imagines her impending move to New York City. Hotel Dallas may leave viewers with questions about the basic facts of its core subject matter, but it puts them through a more lasting emotional experience than any talking-head documentary.

Josh Bell ’02 is the Las Vegas Weekly film editor.