Tiong Bahru Social Club review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Tan Bee Thiam
Cast : Thomas Pang, Goh Guat Kian, Jalyn Han, Noorlinah Mohamed, Jo Tan, Munah Bagharib
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Sci-fi
Run Time : 88 min
Opens : 10 December 2020
Rating : NC16

How does one measure happiness? We know when we feel happy or unhappy, but are there empirical values that can be attached to that? In this Singaporean satirical comedy-drama, the idea of what it would take to make the happiest community in the world is explored.

Ah Bee (Thomas Pang) lives with his mother Mui (Goh Guat Kian) in the Pearl Bank apartment complex. Now 30, Ah Bee must step out on his own. He joins the Tiong Bahru Social Club, an experimental community, as a Happiness Agent. Overseen by manager Haslinna (Noorlinah Mohammed), all the residents of the community wear a ring that monitors their happiness levels and are constantly surveilled. Ah Bee is assigned to care for his senior client, Ms Wee (Jalyn Han), an eccentric cat lady who doesn’t buy into the whole “happiest society on earth” rhetoric. Ah Bee meets other Happiness Agents, including Geok (Jo Tan) and Orked (Munah Bagharib), but he soon finds that this almost-cult of enforced happiness might not be the best place for him, and must figure out if he belongs in Tiong Bahru Social Club.

This reviewer will admit to often not being very interested in local movies. Tiong Bahru Social Club is one of the most fascinating Singaporean movies in recent memory. It is meticulously designed and shot, has something to say, and is genuinely funny. Director Tan Bee Thiam displays confidence as a filmmaker, while cinematographer and editor Looi Wan Ping constructs an aesthetically pleasing film that’s beautiful to look at even as things feel increasingly off.

The semi-sci-fi elements, including an artificial intelligence assistant named BRAVO60, and the “quirky” dream sequences are all there in just the right amounts, such that one element of the movie doesn’t overwhelm another. Despite how deliberately mannered Tiong Bahru Social Club looks and feels, it is unmistakably authentic. This hits the sweet spot of being something that will resonate with many Singaporean viewers while also being accessible to international viewers. Beyond that, this movie will give international viewers unique, focused insight into Singaporean society unlike anything else.

Tiong Bahru Social Club has great characters, but is not necessarily plot-driven, though this is by design. Director Tan is keenly aware of the tone of the film at all times – the movie’s “happiness cult” is wont to remind audiences of movies like Sorry to Bother You, but it never gets genuinely dark. Upsetting perhaps, but never horrifying, when some viewers might be willing the movie to fully embrace that darkness as it reaches its conclusion, so it helps to bear in mind that this is not Black Mirror. While it is enjoyable, the movie does feel longer than its 88-minute runtime and can sometimes come across as a little too self-conscious, the way many deliberately designed movies do.

Thomas Pang makes for a great agreeable ‘blank slate’ lead character, while actors like Jo Tan and Munah Bagharib create characters who are odd but likeable, and whom audiences understand are struggling with something under the surface. Noorlinah Mohammed’s Stepfordian turn as Haslinna is the right amount of annoyingly corporate and insincere. Both Goh Guat Kian and Jalyn Han give the sometimes-outlandish movie a good degree of grounding. Veteran theatre practitioner Han is especially entertaining as a cantankerous cat-loving lady who sees through all the bulls**t and who enjoys ordering Ah Bee about.

One of the many fascinating things about Tiong Bahru Social Club is that it is cowritten by Tan and Antti Toivonen, who moved from Finland to Singapore 11 years ago. According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, Helsinki, Finland was ranked the happiest city in the world, with Singapore coming in at 49th. Toivonen himself has acknowledged that many Finns would disagree with the findings of the report, but then again, the grass is always greener etc. Singapore’s never-ending march of progress means that humanity can get lost in the shuffle – the recent demolition of the Pearl Bank Apartment complex, where Ah Bee and his mother live at the beginning of the film, is emblematic of this.

This film captures that Singaporean obsession with measuring and quantifying everything – everything can be used to judge someone’s value, and everyone’s always sizing everyone else up. As such, it can feel extremely repressive and stifling. The film’s wry observation of this strongly resonated with this reviewer.

Tiong Bahru Social Club will appeal to cinephiles and film students who are preoccupied with things like shot composition, lighting and transitions. More importantly, it also uniquely captures the Singaporean fixation with turning everything, however intangible and ephemeral, into a Key Performance Indicator. This is that rare arthouse film that is thoroughly accessible and enjoyable.

Summary: Tiong Bahru Social Club is a charming, witty and visually pleasing satirical comedy that succinctly captures the Singaporean obsession with measuring and assigning empirical value to abstract things. This is the most striking, memorable and enjoyable local film in a long time. There’s also a cat named Mochi, who gets credited on the poster and in the end titles.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wet Season (热带雨) review

For F*** Magazine

WET SEASON (热带雨)

Director: Anthony Chen
Cast : Yeo Yann Yann, Koh Jia Ler, Christopher Lee, Yang Shi Bin
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: M18

2013’s Ilo Ilo was hailed as one of the best Singaporean films in recent memory, winning awards at international film festivals including Cannes and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. Critics and filmgoers were keenly watching the film’s young writer-director Anthony Chen to see what he would do next. After executive-producing and co-writing the anthology film Distance, Chen has returned to the director’s chair with Wet Season. This film has already been making the festival rounds, debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival and receiving six nominations for the Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Actress for Yeo Yann Yann.

Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) is a Malaysian-born Chinese language teacher at a secondary school in Singapore. She has been trying for a baby with her husband Andrew (Christopher Lee) for years. Andrew works in finance and is too busy at work or entertaining clients to spend much time with Ling. Ling is also responsible for caring for Andrew’s ailing father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin), a stroke patient. When Ling holds a remedial class in school, only one student, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), shows up. Wei Lun appears to have been neglected by his parents, and Ling gradually takes a liking to Wei Lun, sending him home from school in her car. She also shows up to support Wei Lun at an wushu competition where he is representing the school. Ling and Wei Lun find solace in each other, but they soon become inappropriately close.

Wet Season takes what could easily have been a trashy, sensational premise and approaches it from a very sensitive, thoughtful point of view. The movie spends a lot of time setting up the circumstances surrounding its two main characters, never seeming like it’s racing to a big, dramatic plot point. Malaysian Yeo Yann Yann has repeatedly proven herself as a remarkable, subtle actor, and her performance here is as affecting as ever. Ling’s deep sadness manifests in every gesture, every glance – one can tell that great care was taking in developing the character both by Yeo and writer/director Chen.

Koh Jia Ler’s playfulness and youthful energy serve as a great foil for Yeo’s more subdued performances. Chen does a great job of juxtaposing Wei Lun’s immaturity against Ling’s maturity. Both are different characters, and while Ling is better developed, it doesn’t feel like Wei Lun is just a caricature either.

Veteran Chinese theatre actor Yang Shi Bin is remarkably convincing as Ling’s disabled father-in-law. Chen told the press that overseas film journalists thought that he had cast an actual stroke patient in the role.

The more cynical among us might view Wet Season as calibrated to play well at overseas film festivals. Its combination of controversial subject matter with the specificity of the Singapore setting means that to a European or American journalist, it might feel like a textbook critically acclaimed foreign film. That’s not to take anything away from the immense work that Chen and his cast and crew have sunk into this, but the thought was at the very back of this reviewer’s mind.

Ling’s husband Andrew is meant to be an unlikable character, but Christopher Lee’s performance lacks the nuance that his co-stars bring to the table. It sometimes seems like Andrew has wandered out of a Chinese-language drama aired on Channel 8.

The film features beautiful cinematography by Sam Care that enhances the contemplative nature of the movie and emphasises stillness, but it’s the sound design and mixing that stands out even more than the visuals. The film’s sound department includes sound designer/supervising sound editor Zhe Wu and production sound mixer/supervising sound editor Li Chi Kuo. As the title suggests, Wet Season is set during a period of high rainfall. The film features no non-diegetic music, such that the rainfall serves as the movie’s soundtrack and as a kind of inner monologue for Ling. It’s a creative decision that serves the story well, enveloping the audience in atmosphere and drawing them into the story.

The challenges faced by the characters in the film are easy for many around the world to relate to, but the setting is deliberately very Singaporean. One of the themes in the film is how students have an aversion to learning Chinese, and how schools place the language as a lower priority than subjects like Mathematics or English. The relationship between Malaysia and Singapore is also touched on, and a subplot involves caring for an elderly relative, a responsibility many Singaporeans undertake. The movie never comes off as preachy, weaving all the issues it addresses into its narrative fabric.

One technique that Chen uses to increase verisimilitude is showing characters on the toilet. This is carried from Ilo Ilo. One wouldn’t usually see a character on the toilet in a movie, so this makes the movie feel more like real life. There is also a scene in which Ling’s father-in-law soils himself; the camera never shying away from the mess.

Wet Season’s premise, coupled with the fact that its protagonists have previously played mother and son, might set tongues wagging, but Chen approaches the subject matter with enough careful nuance. It’s a sad, moving film that rarely goes straight for the tear ducts, and by the time we get to a big, dramatic emotional beat, it is well earned.

Summary: Anthony Chen’s portrait of a forbidden relationship between teacher and student is layered with heart and a sprinkling of humour. The film feels thoroughly authentic and is anchored by its excellent leads, Yeo Yann Yann delivering a powerhouse performance without doing anything overwrought.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Home is calling: Invisible Stories set visit

For inSing

HOME IS CALLING: INVISIBLE STORIES SET VISIT

inSing meets the director and actors of HBO Asia’s new original series on location 

By Jedd Jong

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

HBO Asia has begun principal photography for its latest original series Invisible Stories, which is being shot on location in Singapore. The six-episode half-hour drama series revolves around the lives of everyday people living in the fictional housing estate of Sungei Merah.

The series is created by Singaporean writer-director Ler Jiyuan, who worked with a team of local writers to realise Invisible Stories. Ler has directed episodes of local TV series and TV films including Zero Calling, Code of Law and Gone Case, and recently wrote and directed episodes of Grisse for HBO Asia.

Invisible Stories is produced by Singapore-based company Birdmandog as part of HBO Asia’s partnership with Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

Showrunner and director Ler Jiyuan. Photo credit: HBO Asia

“80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats. I myself grew up in an HDB flat in the 90s, a three-room flat back when there were still gangsters,” Ler told the press during a break on the set. “My father was a taxi driver. Invisible Stories is the universe I came out from as a child,” he revealed, adding “I feel that it will be interesting for international audiences to see this side of Singapore, the non-crazy rich side.”

The stories being told in the series include that of a taxi driver who moonlights as a spiritual medium by night, and a banker who is a family man but lives a secret double life by night. The series features a regional cast comprising actors from Singapore, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

inSing was on set at a coffeeshop or ‘kopitiam’ in Chong Pang, a quintessentially Singapore location. This is the partial setting for the first episode, starring Yeo Yann Yann. Malaysian actress Yeo has starred in notable Singaporean films including 881, Singapore Dreaming and Ilo Ilo. In Invisible Stories, Yeo plays Lian, a single mother working at the drinks stall in a coffee shop to support her autistic teenage son.

Ler wrote the role of Lian with Yeo in mind. She was initially hesitant to take on the role, for fear of it being too emotionally taxing, but later accepted. “The first thing I felt is that it would be very heavy for me. As a mother, I am also struggling with my child and my work,” Yeo confessed. “I’m juggling between taking care of my child and my work, I was trying to avoid something that was so heavy for myself. I was scared, because once you’re in it, you have to dig [into] the pain. Of course, there’s joy, but the pain is so much deeper.”

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Yeo said she was inspired by an interview she watched in which actress Meryl Streep said she felt a responsibility to take on roles that would give voice to the voiceless. Yeo said of participating in a project that will represent Singapore on a global stage, “I’m proud of it, and I’m proud of giving voices to the unheard.”

Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo was sporting bruises, including bite-marks, that she assured us were mostly makeup. Yeo had shot a scene the previous day in which Lian’s son Brian had a meltdown. “A meltdown for an autistic child is when they don’t feel right. You take something away from them, they have a meltdown,” Yeo explained. The cast worked closely with a special education teacher to ensure that the life of an autistic person and their caregiver were portrayed sensitively and accurately. “Many things that we perform were approved by the advisor. The advisor was very happy that we didn’t over-exaggerate it or under-represent it,” Yeo said.

Director Ler Jiyuan. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The issue of caring for an autistic child hits close to home for director Ler, who has two cousins with non-verbal autism. “I put myself in the shoes of a caretaker, Ler said, adding that “for them, it’s a really hardcore commitment. It’s emotionally draining, financially draining, especially for those of the lower rungs of society.” He emphasised that “the story is a very painful one, but one I still feel is necessary for us to see.”

Devin Pan on the set of Invisible Stories. Photo credit: HBO Asia

Taiwanese actor Devin Pan plays Brian, Lian’s son. Speaking in Mandarin, Pan called the meltdown scene the “most challenging scene” he has ever filmed. “You need to be very physically and mentally strong to make it through scenes like that,” he said.

Yeo Yann Yann and Devin Pan. Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo and Pan worked during rehearsals to form the mother-son bond their characters must share, and it carried over into the interviews with Pan holding Yeo’s hand when he felt nervous about being surrounded by the media. Speaking about working with Yeo, Pan said “I think this is the most fortunate thing that’s happened to me since I’ve left Taiwan to take on this job.” Both Yeo and Pan have a theatre background and he commented that they have similar personalities, saying “We’re both relatively carefree and easy-going but we focus on the performance, so we find it easy to play off each other when we’re acting.”

The series was born out of a desire to tell the stories of people whom we pass by on the street everyday in Singapore and wouldn’t necessarily give a second glance. “Every coffeeshop has a drinks stall aunty, but you never really think about who she is,” Ler explained. “That’s what I’m trying to do, to tell a story about people like that whom you’d walk by and never really notice; in regular dramas they’d just be extras,” he remarked.

Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo gained a new appreciation for what it’s like to work at a drinks stall in a coffeeshop. “Even just staying there for five minutes is not an easy thing, it’s very hot inside, it’s really not easy,” she said.

Yeo also took her seven-year-old daughter onto the HDB flat set the previous night. “She saw us struggling, melting down, fighting,” Yeo said. “I asked her ‘are you afraid of it?’ and she said ‘no, it’s fake!’” Yeo said her daughter does have some interest in acting, but that her dream job is an art teacher.

Ler Jiyuan, Yeo Yann Yann and Devin Pan on the set of Invisible Stories. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Invisible Stories is set to premiere later this year on HBO Asia’s on-air, online and on-demand platforms.

 

When Ghost Meets Zombie (女鬼爱上尸) review

WHEN GHOST MEETS ZOMBIE  (女鬼爱上尸)

Director : Han Yew Kwang
Cast : Nathan Hartono, Ferlyn G, Jesseca Liu, Jeremy Chan, Fann Wong, Gurmit Singh, Andie Chen, Kate Pang, Suhaimi Yusof
Genre : Romance/Comedy/Horror
Run Time : 1 h 47 mins
Opens : 14 February 2019
Rating : PG13

Romantic zombie comedies are a niche subgenre, but those movies have their fans. From My Boyfriend’s Back to Warm Bodies to Burying the Ex, there’s often a cult film quality to these oddball horror romantic comedy hybrids. Throwing its hat (or disembodied limb) in the ring is When Ghost Meets Zombie.

Zhen Zhen (Ferlyn G) is a beauty pageant contestant who can be characterised as an ‘ah lian’, roughly analogous to the Essex Girl stereotype from the UK. She’s brasher and not as refined as her fellow competitors, but she refuses to compromise who she is. Zhen Zhen and the other contestants travel to Rainbow Village in Thailand for a photoshoot. Local legend has it that a group of heroic young men sacrificed themselves to save the village from an impending flood some 50 years ago, propping up a wall as everyone else got to safety. Pong (Nathan Hartono) was the leader of this group. These young men did not die but were turned into zombies by a priest.

When an accident in the village leads to Zhen Zhen’s death, her spirit inadvertently possesses Pong’s undead body. If Zhen Zhen doesn’t fulfil her heart’s desire in 49 days, she will vanish into nothingness forever. Zhen Zhen finds her way back to Singapore and discovers there’s still a way for her to fulfil her dream of winning a beauty pageant. With the help of her best friend Bai Bai (Jesseca Liu), a mortuary cosmetologist, Pong enters a male beauty pageant. Zhen Zhen’s mother Meng Na (Fann Wong) is still grappling with the death of her daughter, and Zhen Zhen’s spirit in Pong’s body must convince Meng Na that her daughter’s presence remains in this realm.

When Ghost Meets Zombie is the first feature film from WaWa Pictures, a prolific local production company known for Chinese-language TV series like Secrets for Sale, The Oath, Game Plan and Crescendo. Han Yew Kwang, who also helmed the 2015 sex comedy Rubbers, directs from a screenplay by the WaWa team. The result is a mish-mash of disparate elements which doesn’t gel. There’s a faint glimmer of something appealing buried beneath lots of stuff that just doesn’t work.

The plot is needlessly convoluted, with plenty of rules needing to be established. The supernatural mechanics of a ghost possessing a zombie are over-explained and yet still make no sense. What little underlying logic there is seems simultaneously overthought and undercooked.

There is an unsettling nature to the occult aspects of the story which the filmmakers attempt to smooth over with comedy, to very mixed results. Gurmit Singh’s Taoist priest character constantly cuts himself and even chops off his own fingers – this is somehow inherently comedic. Elsewhere, another character gets a face full of ashes after an urn containing the remains of their relative is smashed on the floor. The film doesn’t have the wicked wit needed to make the requisite dark humour work and has this bright sitcom artificiality to it which is incompatible with the more macabre elements of the story.

In addition to the various story and character problems brought about by the specific subject matter, the usual issues that plague locally-made Chinese-language comedy movies are present here. There are scores of cameos from TV personalities in lieu of jokes, and Jack Neo shows up to name-check films he’s directed in a cringe-inducing scene. The product placement from brands like massage chair maker Ogawa, beauty spa New York Skin Solutions and restaurant group Tung Lok is omnipresent and obtrusive. Then there’s the tonal whiplash, with sentimentality added to the nauseating mix of horror and comedy.

Nathan Hartono is a likeable, charming performer, and the film gets plenty of mileage out of his swoon-worthy physique. However, one can’t help but feel sympathy well up watching him get subjected to myriad indignities. As a zombie, he has almost no actual lines. He proves sufficiently adept at physical comedy and there is an attempt at developing a back-story for Pong, but it’s clear that this isn’t the best use of Hartono’s talents.

The thing is, a romantic pairing between Nathan Hartono and Ferlyn G is not the worst idea – Ferlyn’s brash persona and Hartono’s typically suave demeanour would have made for a good odd couple pairing. It’s just that the filmmakers constantly set up obstacles in their own way. This is a romance between a disembodied spirit and an undead creature, so no amount of chemistry can compensate for the logistic and metaphysical problems that arise. The sappy guitar-driven duet performed by Hartono and Ferlyn is pleasant but is a poor fit for this movie.

The supporting performers do the best with what they’re given – the romantic subplot between Jesseca Liu’s Bai Bai and Jeremy Chan’s Lai Lai could have been worthwhile if it weren’t so underdeveloped and fuelled by clichés. Fann Wong’s performance as a grieving mother is surprisingly affecting, but feels out of place in a madcap comedy, yet another sign of the film’s tonal inconsistency.

Gurmit Singh’s priest character, the de-facto villain, is altogether off-putting. The character is ostensibly comedic but is also meant to be menacing, and Singh just seems miscast.

When Ghost Meets Zombie tries something crazy and fails at it, but the filmmakers deserve credit for trying. It’s hard to determine what anyone really was going for and everything could stand to be a lot more streamlined, but it has Hartono in the lead role going for it. It’s perhaps in trying to appeal to fans of Channel 8 comedies and dramas while also trying to incorporate horror comedy elements into the story that When Ghost Meets Zombie falls apart.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Killer Not Stupid (杀手不笨) review

KILLER NOT STUPID (杀手不笨)

Director : Jack Neo
Cast : Jay Shih, Nadow, Amber An, Apple Chan, Gadrick Chin, Lin Mei-Hsiu, Ricky Davao
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 5 February 2019
Rating : PG13

After including hints of action in the Ah Boys to Men series, Jack Neo leaps into the action-comedy genre with Killer Not Stupid. Do his broad comedic sensibilities jibe with the world of international terrorism and high-stakes intrigue? We’ll get to that in a bit.

The film centres on Hornet (Jay Shih), an elite assassin who wants out of the game. Hornet is assisted by his trusty tech guy Mark (Nadow), and they’re undertaking the proverbial ‘one last job’. Hornet and Mark must acquire a valuable flash drive dubbed ‘100K’, which contains comprising material on the world’s terrorist rings. Naturally, rival forces, including the triad leader ‘Grandma’ (Ryan Lian), are also after the drive.

Along the way, Hornet and Mark meet Sha Bao (Gadrick Chin), Mark’s former classmate from Malaysia. All three have coincidentally booked into the same hotel as Talia (Amber An), the ditzy daughter of a slain Filipino drug lord. Talia is being escorted by the no-nonsense agent Ira (Apple Chan), who soon grows sick of Sha Bao’s antics. Now that Hornet wants to quit, Mother (Lin Mei-Hsiu), his former boss, puts a hit out on him. The international criminal Adolf (Ricky Davao) is hellbent on acquiring the 100K drive, meaning Hornet is pursued on all sides on his last job.

This appears to be the result of the Ah Boys to Men films doing well in Taiwan, leading to Taiwanese investors bankrolling Neo to make a movie in Taiwan with Taiwanese stars. Killer Not Stupid is completely unrelated to I Not Stupid and its sequels. It’s a shame that Neo chose to remind audiences of that film, which remains among his best. While I Not Stupid was broadly comedic and wasn’t especially deft in its handling of suicide, it was an incisive, resonant and moving piece of satire. Killer Not Stupid is, by contrast, a spectacular failure that is almost physically painful to watch. It’s not easy to make a film this bad, such that at some point it must have been a deliberate choice to handle everything in the worst way possible.

Action-comedies are a bit of a tricky genre in that if one isn’t careful, the comedy can undermine the stakes. This is exactly what happens with Killer Not Stupid. The unfunny gags, pratfalls and lame wordplay prevent the audience from taking any part of the international terror plot seriously. The film falls back on the tired device of the heroes disguising themselves in unconvincing drag. Every joke is accompanied by cartoony sound effects, including at least two uses of the sad trombone noise. If a joke is funny, it doesn’t need sound effects, freeze frames, superimposed graphics, or sped-up footage to tell audiences to laugh. Within seconds of that, characters get shot in the head.

The most basic demonstration of stakes in action-comedies is the classic scene of Jackie Chan fighting a bad guy while he balances a priceless vase. In that moment, the stakes are that Jackie could drop and break the vase. Neo doesn’t understand this principle. It’s a pity because there clearly were talented stunt performers and riggers and competent special effects foremen involved at some point. The resources that Neo has at his disposal have engendered a self-indulgence, when other directors could have created something worthwhile with the same resources. That said, parts of the movie still feel very cheap: the MacGuffin is one of those ‘cryptex’ flash drives that you get as a corporate gift.

Mandopop duo Awaking’s Jay Shih is a passable leading man. He’s the most tolerable part of the movie because he’s one of the very few characters who isn’t mugging for the camera like a clown on cocaine. He also acquits himself well in the action scenes.

Nadow’s Mark is the standard comic relief tech guy. Most action movies have one character of this type. As annoying as Mark is, there are several other characters in the film who way outstrip him in terms of how grating they are.

Gadrick Chin’s Sha Bao has the ridiculous gimmick of being obsessed with 70s Hong Kong movies, imagining himself to be the second coming of Qin Han and Bruce Lee. None of it is funny. Amber An plays up the spoilt princess stock type to an unbearable degree.

Lin Mei-Hsiu’s character Mother is just about the worst in the film, because as Hornet’s former employer who is now out to kill him, we should be intimidated by the character so we can fear for the protagonist. Instead, the character is maximally silly.

The villain is named ‘Adolf’, in case viewers weren’t clear he’s supposed to be the villain. Jack Neo is nothing if not a master of subtlety.

“The comedy that people like will be there and comedy is what I’m good at,” Neo declared at the press conference announcing Killer Not Stupid. This reviewer acknowledges that perhaps he isn’t the target audience for the film, but it is mildly unsettling at best, horrifying at worst that anyone could find this funny. We’ve always hoped for Singaporean filmmakers to create more action films, so it’s disheartening but not surprising that Neo gets to try his hand at this genre and completely fumbles it.

RATING: 1 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Zombiepura movie review

ZOMBIEPURA

Director : Jacen Tan
Cast : Alaric Tay, Benjamin Heng, Joeypink Lai, Chen Xiuhuan, Richard Low, Haresh Tilani, Edward Choy, Rayve Zen
Genre : Horror/Comedy
Run Time : 83 mins
Opens : 25 October 2018
Rating : PG13

It’s every reservist national serviceman’s worst nightmare: what if you book in and due to undead-related shenanigans, never book out? This is the premise of the horror comedy Zombiepura.

Kayu Tan (Alaric Tay) isn’t taking his reservist duty seriously, much to the chagrin of his overzealous sergeant Lee Siao On (Benjamin Heng). Kayu and his friend Tazan (Haresh Tilani) feign illness, in the grand tradition of national servicemen malingering to avoid going on duty. At the infirmary, Kayu and Siao On discover that their fellowmen servicemen have turned into rabid zombies. The pair must get along to survive, and must also rescue canteen operator Susie (Chen Xiuhuan) and her daughter Xiao Ling (Joeypink Lai). People will get bitten, obstacle courses will be navigated, and hopefully, ideas will be awoken as the ragtag gang try to reach the outside world and get to safety.

Zombiepura is a film that was announced in 2011 and has taken seven years to come to fruition. This reviewer has always wanted to see more mainstream genre fare, with the ability to travel, come out of Singapore. Singapore films are perceived as being either highbrow Cannes contenders or Chinese New Year fare aimed at uncles and aunties in the heartland. On paper, Zombiepura seems to occupy this middle ground. While the effort behind making a film like this is evident, the execution leaves plenty to be desired.

The film finds itself 14 years late to the Shaun of the Dead bandwagon, with characters that are nowhere near as endearing as those in Edgar Wright’s zom-com, nor jokes that are anywhere near as funny. It’s a lot closer to Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.

A lot of Zombiepura hinges on the local context, being set in an army camp. There are in-jokes about the banality of reservist duty and the characters are all roughly stock types, that can be easily described with one line on the poster. Plenty of the humour is crass, and audiences are meant to laugh at a soldier pretending to have depression to dodge duty. This is to say nothing of the film’s flagrant misogyny – the female lead is referred to almost exclusively as ‘chiobu’, Hokkien for hot chick, and nobody finds this inappropriate.

The premise is relatively clever in that containing the film within an army camp limits the scope, so the movie is not obligated to show expensive scenes of city streets overrun with zombies, World War Z-style. There are several physical comedy gags that work, notably one involving two characters scrambling up a flagpole with the zombies standing at the base grasping at their feet. The zombies’ specific weakness, while nothing ground-breaking, is good for a chuckle. The makeup effects, overseen by June Goh, are serviceable, and there is a healthy amount of blood and gore.

Horror films are often excellent vehicles for allegorical messages. Train to Busan astutely commented on South Korea’s hierarchical pressure-cooker society, and one of the original zombie movies, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, was a satire on burgeoning consumerism in America. Zombiepura half-heartedly attempts something roughly along these lines, equating the zoned-out way bored servicemen go about their patrol duty with the mindlessness of your average zombie. However, the film doesn’t push the socio-political commentary as far as this reviewer would’ve liked, but to be honest, nobody was expecting that of this particular film anyway.

Stars Alaric Tay and Benjamin Heng, who form the production company JAB Films with director Jacen Tan, work well opposite each other. There’s not very much to either character, and they’re difficult to root for. Naturally, there is a modicum of character development as the gravity of their predicament hits them. This is to say nothing of the on-the-nose names like Kayu and Siao On. Richard Low cameos as Siao On’s father Mad Dog, a Regimental Sergeant Major. The implication is that Siao On is desperate to live up to his father’s reputation, but this aspect of the character doesn’t get enough play.

Joeypink Lai, Miss Universe Singapore 2016 finalist and realtor, functions purely as eye candy and little else. The Xiao Ling character has no complexities, and when she figures in a would-be emotional scene, there is no impact at all. Chen Xiuhuan is Lai’s onscreen mother, who is similarly objectified, albeit not to the extent Lai is.

Rayve Zen’s Chua, who initially seems harmless but becomes more villainous as the film goes on, is arguably the most interesting character in the film. It is in depicting his self-centredness that the film gets anywhere in the Train to Busan zone. Haresh Tilani of Ministry of Funny fame gets a small role as kind of a sidekick to Kayu, who disappears once Kayu and Siao On team up.

It is exceedingly difficult to get a movie made in Singapore, let alone a genre movie requiring stunts, permits, special effects and specialised location work. The thing is, Zombiepura easily could’ve been a better, smarter, funnier and cannier movie without any additions to the budget. It doesn’t cost anything to not constantly objectify the female lead or outright mock mental illness.

It’s ironic that one of the film’s sponsors is grocer Taste, since Zombiepura is sorely lacking in taste. Then again, one might argue that tasteless is exactly what a zombie movie would be. We’d hesitate to call this ‘encouraging’ for the industry, but in some technical aspects, perhaps it is a stagger/hobble in roughly the right direction.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

You Undead, I Undead, Everybody Undead: Zombiepura cast and director interviews

YOU UNDEAD, I UNDEAD, EVERYBODY UNDEAD

The cast and director of Zombiepura talk making the local horror action comedy

By Jedd Jong

This Halloween, in addition to the usual Hollywood offerings, moviegoers have a local option: Zombiepura. The film, directed and co-written by Jacen Tan, imagines the chaos that would unfold if a zombie virus outbreak struck a Singaporean army camp. Alaric Tay (now going by the mononym ‘Alaric’) and Benjamin Heng star as Kayu Tan and Lee Siao On respectively – the former is a slacker corporal, while the latter is a fired-up sergeant, both serving their reservist.

Tan, Alaric and Heng were joined by co-stars Joeypink Lai and Chen Xiuhuan to speak to the press about the film, which was seven years in the making. Zombiepura was first announced in 2011 and has taken a while to come to fruition. The production faced myriad challenges in getting the film to the big screen, with the movie’s budget estimated at around $900 000.

“I had this naïve idea back in the early days that I would just make a zombie film and just get all my friends to come [to act in it],” Tan admitted. He added that as he got serious about making the movie, he “I learned that it involved a lot of makeup, skills and craft”. Tan also said he had to learn to write the movie within the budgetary constraints the production faced.

While pop culture overall seems to be inundated with hordes of the living dead in every medium, Zombiepura purports to be the first Singaporean zombie film. Setting the film in a reservist camp appears to be a sly way to equate the bored way in which servicemen go about their duties with the mindlessness of your average zombie.

“The characters that I write are based on people you know during national service,” Tan revealed, drawing on the broad archetypes one might encounter in any given platoon. “To put them in a movie fighting zombies where s*** happens…that was why I was interested in the movie. Something really happens. In the army, it’s just exercises,” Tan said.

Star Alaric, known for his many roles in the satirical TV comedy The Noose and for appearances in series like Serangoon Road and Sent for HBO Asia, spoke about the zombie media he is a fan of. “I’m more of a Walking Dead fan. And of course, 28 Days Later. I only watched the first one, I didn’t watch the sequel,” he said – look out for a nod to the Danny Boyle film in Zombiepura. “I love I Am Legend, the Will Smith one, not the very old one,” Alaric added.

Benjamin Heng said he grew up watching jiang si or Chinese zombie movies and was introduced to zombie movies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland by Tan. Tan cited George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, often considered the first true zombie movie, as his favourite entry in the subgenre.

Joeypink Lai plays the female lead Xiao Ling, often referred to as “chiobu” – a Hokkien phrase meaning “hot chick”. Speaking about filming the action sequences, which involved navigating a standard obstacle course, Lai said “It was very fun for me! I’m more garang (gung-ho) than [Alaric and Benjamin]!”

Lai was a contestant in the New Paper New Face beauty pageant in 2015 and became a finalist in Miss Singapore Universe in 2016. She is also a realtor. “I think before that, regarding the character, like how I want her to walk, present herself and things like that, I did watch quite a lot of films regarding character of this kind of style. And then inspired, and then roll into one that I think would suit Xiao Ling,” Lai said of her process in playing the Xiao Ling character. She acknowledged the challenge of filming emotional scenes, saying “It’s the first time that I have to cry on screen…my vibe is always very outgoing and very cheerful.”

Chen Xiuhuan, no stranger to audiences of Chinese-language television series on MediaCorp Channel 8, plays Susie, Xiao Ling’s mother and a canteen stall operator at the army camp where the breakout occurs. “I actually don’t believe that zombie[s] exist,” Chen said. She revealed that producer Lim Teck, managing director of film distribution and production company Clover Films, convinced her to sign on to Zombiepura. “Lim Teck called me and said ‘this is something that’s very different from what you’ve always acted, you always look pretty, so why not take up the challenge?’”

The film’s action sequences are overseen by veteran stunt coordinator Sunny Pang. Alaric said he enjoyed working with Pang, explaining “As an actor, you always want to feel prepared getting on the set…working with Sunny and his team was definitely very helpful. It gave me a lot of confidence.”

Heng said he was very proud of Pang, having gotten to know Pang when he was an extra. “To have his own team, they were so hardworking, stressing the safety as well,” Heng said of the Ronin Action Group led by Pang.

Director Tan called the stunt performers and extras “the real stars of the film”. Tan credited them with working long hours wearing cloudy contact lenses and prosthetic special effects makeup, saying “they really held the film together.” Tan declared of the stunt players, “it is actually a world-class team that is as good as [one you’d find] anywhere.”

Tan praised actor Rayve Zen who plays Chua, one of the antagonists in the film. Tan called Zen “a great actor ready to burst on the scene”, and said that when he saw Zen’s audition tape, he “knew it was him, immediately, 100%.” Tan added that when Zen was on the set, “people were very scared of him, but that’s just him being in character.”

Many might look to Zombiepura as a sign that Singapore’s film industry is continuing to develop, and that more genre films from the local scene might soon be a possibility. However, Heng had a warning. “Don’t go into this business,” Heng exhorted, half- (or maybe less than half?) – jokingly. “Go into something else. Go into property instead. Advise your kids to study hard.”