Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Aggravatin' August, Bat-Hound!

This month saw a huge deluge (comparatively) of Singapore film in our cinemas, possibly due to the National Day spirit of local pride, etc. The big question is: Were they any good? Well... at least they weren't all bad...

錢不夠用 2 (Money No Enough 2)
I have no qualms about making this public - and in fact, probably everyone who knows me is already aware of it - Jack Neo is my most hated filmmaker ever. Believe me, folks abroad, you have no idea. Uwe Boll and Michael Bay may be hated by multitudes, but at least they receive almost universal derision and scorn. Mr. Neo is the box-office champion in Singaporean terms, and over here, that means that everyone kisses his ass and sings praises of him, even fucking government officials. This has had the effect of expanding the guy's head to grotesque proportions, such that he's constantly in danger of floating away in a cloud of self-praise. He's been rated No. 1 most influential person in the local industry, awarded a Cultural Medallion, mentioned in National Day Rallies, and so on. All this, despite the fact that he does not know how to make a decent movie. There is no artistry, there is no subtlety, the dialogue is riper than a decomposing rat in the middle of the street in summer, and the jokes are recycled probably from Biblical times. How is it possible for someone to make movies for over 10 years without learning anything? When everyone around him fails to point out his mistakes (compare the Variety review, linked above in the title, to this local one, and see what I mean).

But I digress. We're talking about this specific movie. I wasn't intending to see this, but thanks to circumstances beyond my control (someone visiting from abroad wanted to see a local movie, and this was the only one available at that timeslot), I found myself paying weekend ticket prices for what I was sure would be painful at best, and suicide-inducing at worst. I was wrong. It was worse than that. It was so unbelievably fucking painful, I actually wanted to go out and gun down everyone I saw. I was hitting myself, I was hitting the chair beside me, I was hitting the person sitting in the chair (who luckily was my cousin) - all from the unbearable agony of watching this fetid turd of a movie.

His is an aesthetic born of cheap soap operas and a general cheapness of character. The cheapest people to hire are people fresh out of school and interns, and so it seems as though he staffed his crew with just these folks. The camerawork is amateurish at best, downright awful at worst, often with shot selections that just leave you asking, "Why?" The editing is pretty much incomprehensible, and the music choices bash you over the head with their obviousness and mawkishness. The montages... oh, the montages that pop up every 5 minutes to scream at you: "LOOK HOW AWFUL THE OLD WOMAN'S LIFE IS! OMFG HER KIDS DON'T CARE ABOUT HER!"

The CGI is... well, I haven't seen CGI this bad since... well, never. Honestly, it's bad enough to rival fucking Sing to the Dawn. It looks like it was done by a monkey with one arm. And there wasn't even any point to the CGI scene, either. The scripting is clockwork melodrama that has far too many threads to keep coherent, at least in the hands of such a hack. Which isn't surprising, considering he wrote it himself. And the product placement... let's just say it wasn't so much "placement" as "shoving in your goddamn face". It makes Sex and the City looks positively subtle. Shameless is certainly not in the man's dictionary.

Oops. I didn't mean for this to turn into a rant. Let me just give one or two praises (!) and call it a day. The old lady Lai Meng is actually really decent and convincing in her role. She was able to arouse a certain degree of sympathy from me, right up to the point where I realized the movie could only end with her death - then I was just hoping she would fucking die already. Also, Mark Lee proves that he's pretty much the only one among the 3 male leads who can actually act, leaving the abilities of his "teacher" Neo in the dust. His performance is biting, funny, and surprisingly tender - it also helps that his character is the only one who seems to have any sort of arc at all.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe
I remember when I was but a wee mite, eagerly awaiting each adventure our intrepid paranormal investigators would embark upon every week on the goggle box. Aliens, bizarre creatures, mysterious killers. It was intriguing, it was spooky, it was mind-boggling, it was great. I Want to Believe that this is equally good, but I cannot lie. This feels like a mediocre episode in the series, expanded to feature length. There's never any sense of urgency or momentum, and the mystery is never compelling (ending with a whimper, in fact). Like George Lucas with his Star Wars franchise, Chris Carter needs to stop flogging a dead horse. The X-Files should never be this criminally boring.

The Midnight Meat Train
This is based on a Clive Barker short story (I'm pretty sure the original story would've been better), and the problem with adapting short stories for the screen is that more often than not, short stories are pretty skimpy on stuff happening. So in order to fill up a feature's worth of time, the writers have to think up other stuff for the characters to do. The problem here is that most of the stuff they think up is really nothing but time-wasting. People just wander around and nothing happens for a really long time in the second act. This exploitation splatter flick is, unfortunately, not bad enough to be hilarious and fun, but still pretty bad (that's what happens when you take yourself too seriously, kids). There's a final twist that could've been interesting, but it's all spoilt by the Stupid, Stupid Lead Characters and the mediocre execution (no pun intended).

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
I have nothing against brainless popcorn flicks. In fact, I enjoyed movies like The Transporter and its sequel, and you really can't get much stupider than that. However, the reason I enjoyed them was this: Because they were so over-the-top and ridiculous, they were ridiculously entertaining. Come on, Jason Statham drives his car up a ramp, flips it around in mid-air, and makes use of a crane that's conveniently nearby to remove a bomb from the bottom of his car! However, I hate a brainless popcorn flick like this Mummy sequel, because it's not entertaining in the least. In fact, the biggest crime this brainless summer movie is guilty of, besides mangling the Chinese language, is being incredibly boring.

A Month of Hungry Ghosts
This local documentary definitely has an interesting subject - the Chinese festival of hungry ghosts, where the Gates of Hell open annually to give its many inhabitants the equivalent of a month-long vacation in the human realm. There are so many traditions associated with the festival that to discuss them all in-depth would probably take a miniseries. Too bad this doc only skims the surface when it comes to them, preferring instead to look at it through Western eyes, content to just go, "Ooh! Isn't that quaint?" The lack of insight, coupled with a rather messy structure, result in a rather unsatisfying documentary that squanders the potential of the subject matter. Also, the less said about the laughable "paranormal investigators" and their pseudo-scientific bullshit, the better.

Malos Hábitos (Bad Habits)
Going by the poster, the film appears to want to discuss both eating and religion - in fact, might "Habits" be a pun on the article of clothing worn by nuns? - and to be fair, it does present the dangers of excess - both over- and under-eating, as well as eating driven by religious fervor. Unfortunately, it also has a whole bunch of tedious subplots that only serve to muddle whatever arguments it might have had, and which never really gel into a cohesive whole. In most films, the final act is usually the most fast-moving, as threads are tied together and everything reaches a high at the climax. This film bucks the convention, for not only does the pacing not get any quicker, it actually slows down until it eventually just gives up and dies. Not a good way to end your movie at all.

12 蓮花 (12 Lotus)
Royston Tan revisits the world of getai (open-air concerts put up during the Hungry Ghost Festival - there it is again!) after his box office smash 881, but lest he be accused of retreading familiar territory, he decides to go for hardcore melodrama as opposed to a song-and-dance extravaganza like before. The end result may be mixed, as he can't resist slipping into a mishmash of tones sometimes (without the dexterity that made that so enjoyable in 881), but it is never boring to look at. And as usual, there's always something interesting about his films, something that gives me a surprise, and that's reason enough to watch anything, given how jaded I am.

สี่แพร่ง (4bia)
A portmanteau film comprising four horror shorts (hence the rather forced pun in the title), 4bia ostensibly showcases the most popular and skillful Thai directors working in the genre. Not that you'd know it, from the lackluster quality of most of the works on display. As typical with anthologies, it's tremendously uneven: Only one out of the four is good; the rest range from mediocre to jaw-droppingly bad. Let's go through them one by one, shall we?

เหงา (Happiness) - Right off the bat, this looks decent. A slow-burn chiller that doesn't lack for tension, it involves a bored girl who's stuck in an apartment from an injury, who sends a text message to a random number - and gets a reply from an unknown boy. From there, the buildup is effective and well-executed... until everything comes apart in a shitty "shock" twist that's completely pointless and squanders everything that's come before.

ยันต์สั่งตาย (Tit for Tat) - After the terrible ending of the previous short, we come to, well, the worst of the lot, really. This high school black magic revenge fantasy is shot in a frenetic handheld manner, which was probably meant to help disguise the fact that the writing and acting is so uniformly shitty. It's stupid and juvenile, with laughably awful CGI that actually had me in giggles. Also, when will filmmakers learn that annoying characters are useless as horror movie protagonists, because audiences simply don't give a shit about them - and how do you feel fear when you're in fact rooting for their demise?

คนกลาง (In the Middle) - This is a tongue-firmly-in-cheek short that's hands-down the best of the lot. The scenario involves four friends who go camping in the wilderness. Being fans of horror movies, they toss around tons of references (even to the filmmakers' earlier movies), and good fun is had by playing with the conventions of the genre. It's witty, funny, and highly entertaining, but at the same time contains adequate chills. Just this short alone is worth the admission price; too bad you have to sit through such crap to get to it (that's what DVDs are for!). In fact, it's so good, it deserves its own poster here!

Last Fright - This director is supposed to be the mentor of the others. Well, at least some of the students seem to have exceeded the master. It's got a nice setup and concept: A lone air stewardess has to accompany a corpse back to its home country; too bad she's been having an affair with the dead woman's husband! Again, this has sqaundered potential written all over it, as the film falls flat from an over-reliance on cheap shocks and, worse, becomes unintentionally funny when the corpse rolls around all over the place due to turbulence. Oh, and enough of the bad puns in the titles already.

Mad About English
I admit, I'm something of a cultural hypocrite. I don't find Caucasians struggling to speak Chinese funny at all, despite the alarming regularity at which these scenes crop up in local variety shows. However, for some strange unfathomable reason, I do find Chinese struggling to speak English pretty amusing. As such, this breezy comedy-documentary hybrid was a joy to sit through, even though it kind of flounders around after seemingly exhausting its subject about two-thirds of the way through. It follows several ordinary Beijing citizens in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, and their struggles with learning English. Of course, it also presents the larger context, where every single person in the city seems to be, well, mad about learning the language - it's a matter of national and cultural pride to them. You may not agree entirely with their reasons for learning it (China is, after all, a communist country, and the subjects are almost all unabashedly nationalistic), but you gotta admire their grit and determination.

Kallang Roar: The Movie
If I had a cent for every aspiring filmmaker who sacrifices his debut film at the Altar of Good Intentions, I'd... well, I'd probably have enough money to make a movie myself. This is but one of those films, where a writer-director's (now, there's a dangerous combination for a debut filmmaker!) heart is in the right place, but his tragic lack of experience and ability (not to mention funding) cripple the final work. The movie traces the rise of Uncle Choo, the inspiring coach that took Singapore's national football team to glory in the early days, but in over-glorifying its subject, it fails to make him a compelling character. Couple that with some pretty bad direction, clunky and groan-inducing dialogue, and laughably bad sports action scenes, and you end up with something that looks and feels like a very raw student film. Well, you wouldn't be far from the truth. The material is something that should only be handled by an experienced professional; perhaps 5 or 10 years down the road, Cheng Ding An might like to take another stab at it. It'll probably be a helluva lot better.