Kelvin Tong is best known for his movie The Maid. Why? Because he joins the rare ranks of local filmmakers whose films have actually crossed the million dollar mark (the only other of course being the undisputed local filmmaking champion and the darling of the box office, Jack Neo). As I mentioned earlier in a post, two movie genres tend to have box office success in Singapore - comedy and horror. Kelvin has done horror, and he shared during today's Charity Gala that during the making of The Maid, he wondered what would happen if it included comedic elements?
And hence as a result, Singapore's first horror-comedy in its film renaissance, Men in White (some say this has political connotations, but seriously, there is no direct jibes at the ruling party, contrary to what some might think). We're used to watching Jack Neo comedies, so it's quite easy to spot some similarities, but I guess that's in our "Singaporean-ness" that we like to jibe at public policies, and do so in coffeeshops and such, which is a set that rarely finds itself not being featured in our films.
Just so you know where I'll be coming from, I enjoyed Tong's Eating Air (co-directed with Jasmine Ng), thought that The Maid was pretty decent and nicely shot, but totally hated and abhorred Love Story, which I considered one of the worst films of that year. I approached this with low expectations given that it is also an experimental movie in the same spirit (pardon the pun) as Love Story, and so the quick verdict on Men in White is, it's entertaining and has merits in some areas, but as a whole it doesn't come across as a very polished piece of storytelling.
Then again, it's a comedy, and the whole intention of Tong was to try and emulate the classical 80s comedies from Hong Kong, especially those Stephen Chow "mo lei tau" (nonsensical) movies, which Tong confessed this evening to being probably his #1 fan in Singapore. Unfortunately those movies are in a class of its own, and the actors in MiW are certainly not in the same league too. But you can't fault Tong for trying, as MiW was more like a shotgun firing its rounds - some pellets hit the mark, while some others totally miss the target.
Technically, Tong has shown that he understood the elements of suspense - the prologue showed that he is more than capable to helm another horror movie though he overdid this bit to achieve some comedic effect, a subtle prod on those horror movies with extremely closeups of facial expressions, especially that of Asian horror favourite - the widening eyeball.
Alas, in treading onto comedy in almost Jack Neo fashion, MiW too felt like little skits pieced together to make a feature length film. And Neo's style of meshing songs into the narrative, became no less than 3 musical pieces popping up as music videos, complete with sing along lyrics, karaoke style. But I like these songs - they are fun, at times nonsensical, and are in dialect with no English subtitles, which to some, might have been lost in translation (*ahem* I'm multi-lingual, so no problem lah).
The music comes courtesy of Joe Ng (Mee Pok Man), and the sound effects and design is probably one of the best in a local movie, especially since it was relied on heavily to deliver those cartoonish effects with aplomb, and you definitely must keep your ears peeled to appreciate this. One such scene involves Benjamin Heng, who has appeared in 3 out of 4 Kelvin Tong movies, and whose character here, if I were to romanticize it further, could have seemed like a (logical though more fantastical since it's in the spiritual realm) continuation of the one in Eating Air, as they share similar mannerisms, or could actually seem more of a spoof of his earlier Ah-Beng gangster character.
Heng has a supporting role here though. The other main characters are Shaun Chen as Ah Boon, an ex-national reserve badminton player, Alice Lim as Madam Wong, an elderly lady, Ling Lee as Wan Yi, a lady who choked to death, and the Hip Hop duo of err Hip (Xavier Teo) and Hop (Ben Yeung), whom I swear are more irritating as time goes by, until they break into song and dance in those music videos. They are all ghostly pals living in an unused HDB apartment unit, and whine for the most parts about how difficult life is for a ghost in Singapore. Not to forget, a bit part for Sunny the cameraman, another ghostly pal who's filming the chronicles of these friends.
No prizes for acting skills over here, as Shaun Chen does look a little wooden, Xavier and Ben like I mentioned, and chewing up too much screen with their over the top performances, and Ling Lee, well I'm not sure why, but certain angles did make her look rather unappealing. Maybe they are playing to their one-dimensional characters, but the character which stole the show, hands down, is the gambler-contractor. Now he IS the star of MiW with his perfect delivery of some of the best lines and situations in the movie. David Aw had a bit role in the movie as an instigator of change, and he got that role as a result of a MiW Talent Search Contest, which I thought didn't require much talent actually, given the screen time.
The narrative played out chapter-like, each self contained as an answer to commonly asked ghostly questions, which is why it resembled skits, though it does have a romantic thread that slowly runs and gets developed in the 2nd half of the movie. In true local movie fashion, it used multiple languages again to highlight our multi-lingual society, though some might find fault with its politically incorrect racist jokes and stereotyping (OK so I am now feeling guilty at laughing out loud at these). Some of the other jokes might seem a bit too localized for them to be effective to a more international audience, but I guess the sight gags (at times quite juvenile) will always be able to transcend language barriers. An irk I had though, there were noticeable typos in the English subtitles. Probably next time I can proofread for anyone out there!
With a title like that (the original Chinese title of "Ghost ah! Ghost ah!"), this film doesn't take itself seriously, and neither should you. Just kick back and relax, enjoy some of the pluses this movie has to offer, wince at the minuses, and remember, it's "mo lei tau" no-brainer entertainment, so don't fret too much over it.
Shaun Chen, Ling Lee and director-writer Kelvin Tong were present to grace the occasion of the Charity Gala. They shared a few words before the movie began - nothing new to what is already covered in the mainstream papers, about how Tong conceptualized the movie, how Ling Lee was grateful for the working opportunity with Kelvin Tong in her debut feature film role, and how Shaun Chen recounted his experience with supposedly the supernatural during one night home on a bus.
What was memorable during the screening though, was the the projector gave way (tsk tsk GV Marina Hall 5) about 10 minutes into the movie, and left a bored audience to idle for about 15 minutes before the movie resumed. But they made amends though - everyone was entitled to a condition-free complimentary ticket :-)
Not bad for a S$15 donation!