I think Jack Neo's latest movie is hogging the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Firstly, the talk about it being promoting Ah Longs (illegal loan sharks). Seriously if that's the case, then a whole slew of Hong Kong triad movies won't be able to make it to our shores too, but they do. So what's this double standard that we're trying to apply to Singapore films? If anyone were to have watched the movie, I think they probably had switched off during some of the rather heavy-handed moments of the story where it rants about the demerits of their behaviour, and of course, the inevitable.
Secondly, the much talked about body double that took over Fann Wong's place just because she had to show a bare back and a butt crack. OK, so there was so big a tiger tattoo that had to be artificially put on, and the excuse given was lack of time. But seriously, it didn't warrant more than 10 seconds on screen, though if it was not made known, you would be none the wiser. Lastly, the notoriously cruel half-star rating (out of 5) that a local magazine had given the movie, which is akin to saying it's crap. Personally, I thought that while this was not the best of director-co-writer Jack Neo's works, it didn't really justify that half star rating as it certainly had its moments.
Sure you cannot deny the carbon copy of its premise with that of the Korean franchise My Wife is a Gangster, and here we have our very own Fann Wong join the ranks of Shin Eun-Kyung, Zhang Ziyi and Shu Qi as the no-nonsense, hard kicking female triad boss, whose better half is almost incompetent when you put them side by side, hence becoming fodder for laughs. However, while audiences would have gotten their kicks already with Fann playing a member of the opposite sex in Jack Neo's previous movie Just Follow Law, her role here is more of the same, that she smokes, swears and does plenty of superhuman martial arts.
Her role of Li Hua, with a scar on her face, is the #2 in the Shao He Gang, who recently got promoted when patriarch Chen Jun (Richard Low) decides to retire and pass the baton after a near death experience injures his middle finger. Yes, it's classical Jack style on display here, and I thought it was a very sly reference and jibe that he made on two key scenes. If you think that he only knows how to poke fun at our local authorities, here he ups the amp from one of his earlier movies Homerun, which had some Malaysia-Singapore jokes, and played out a rather obvious (though I think I was the only one chuckling) jibes at (ex)-politicians up north, whom I suspect the audience there would be able to pick up without a doubt.
But those expecting him to continue a barrage of such jokes, since this was made in Malaysia, would be a little disappointed. Those looking for a laugh a minute experience would be hard pressed to find something that tickles your funny bone. In fact, those who flock to a Jack Neo movie to witness the latest coffeeshop rumblings or social satires on screen will sorely miss those moments in Ah Long Pte Ltd. Here, the focus is more on the drama with a sprinkling of some comedy, together with action sequences spruced up by special effects. I thought it was rather wry to have taken a leaf out of one current rival's earlier movies, and incorporated it into this movie (ok, it's Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer), but you have to admit the effects were nicely done, even though they proved to be drawing a lot of attention to themselves. However, while some of the set pieces involving gangsters were built up nicely, it fell on the wrong end of the spectrum again when the action turned out to be a little juvenile and unfunny, some even cringe-worthy as they bordered quite close to the ridiculous (as with the many scenes involving guns).
The supporting cast were a mix of Malaysians and local actors, with auntie Lai Ming playing Fann's mother who tries desperately to marry off her daughter, and does so with the help of the Lao Zhar Bor (yes, that's her name again) who was featured in Just Follow Law, as did the return of the security guard from the same movie. Even Richard Low was having a field day with his over the top vulgarity spewing gangster chief, but the somewhat flat lackeys of Soldier Head (KK) and Emperor (Daniel Tan) were up the same alley as the dismal ghostly rappers in Kelvin Tong's Men in White, bringing nothing new to the table.
The saving grace of the movie? It's Mark Lee to the rescue, hamming it up as Jojo Fang, the girly man dance teacher, who's always eager to defend his manhood at every opportunity it is being challenged. I can't recall in recent cinematic outings that he had actually played an effeminate character (though some may gripe that it's just another Gurmit Singh character in Just Follow Law, again opposite Fann), but here in his Malaysian-accented Mandarin, he has almost all the best lines in the movie, and delivers his end of the bargain with aplomb, though sometimes the premise of the scene didn't allow for him to dish out what he was capable of. Naturally, when I go to a Jack Neo movie, the songs are one of the highlights, and here, having it delivered by Mark was a big plus - that song which you see in the trailer, when performed in its brief entirety, was really entertaining.
But alas what could have been a pleasant experience of a Jack Neo production was marred by censorship. Throughout the movie there were somewhat jarring edits, presumably to remove some of the offensive words and dialogue. I suspect that given its content, in all likelihood of an unedited version, would be at least an NC-16 (and that's just my guess to the currently hazy criteria of the classification system), which would be detrimental to the upcoming box office competition with the likes of Stephen Chow's CJ7 and Kung Fu Dunk starring Jay Chou. There were some moments of self-censorship though with the use of animation to deliver the final blows of violent filled fights (serving a purpose like in Romeo Must Die starring Jet Li), though that can be warranted as an artistic expression rather than restraining oneself.
Ah Long Pte Ltd departs slightly from the usual Jack Neo formula, trying hard to best fit all the varying ingredients together, and it'll be interesting to note how Jack would develop his future movies, should this be the point of inflexion in his career, hopefully for the better too. Don't set your expectations high, as you can definitely find ways that this could have become a better movie than it currently is. Enjoy those moments that work for you, and grin through those that don't, then come back here and we'll discuss, ok?
This being the Blog Aloud session, director Jack Neo and star Mark Lee were present today after the screening to speak with the audience and answer some questions fielded. Naturally, those who are adverse to spoilers are advised now to skip this section entirely and come back after you've seen the movie. In a fight against time (ok so I'm feeling a little lethargic), here's some of the points Jack and Mark shared (those in italics are my thoughts):
Ah Long Pte Ltd is Jack Neo's 11th feature film, and he revealed that Money No Enough, being 10 years old (and still holding the box office record for a local movie), has a sequel in the works, which will start filming end of this month!
Re: Ah Long Pte Ltd's Open Ending
Jack mentioned that this was deliberate because just as a leopard never changes its spot, it's anyone's guess as to whether Fann's Li Hua would go totally legit, or fall back into her old ways. And yeah, that wry smile at the end certainly could've swung either way. (Up close Fann looks nice leh, see if you're mesmerized too!)
Re: Dialect Used
There's a smattering of Hokkien and Cantonese, and Jack had tried hard to achieve a balance, as there's this unwritten 50% rule on dialogue in local films here. Anyway Cantonese was in the film because of consideration of the Malaysian audience as well, and it is hard to imagine Ah Long type characters speaking in perfect Mandarin, and not use any dialects.
Jack also mentioned that he hope the audience who view the movie will do so in a relaxed manner, in wanting to be entertained this Chinese New Year period. He had recounted that someone once told him that she looked forward to Jack's movies, because there are always sad scenes to make her cry, and he was quite bewildered and amused by such a reaction.
Re: Concern about Vulgarities Used in the Movie
Jack is a parent himself, and quite frankly (and I agree), there's no need for a movie to teach anyone how to swear and use vulgarities, as children would pick them up from friends anyway (or from those enlisting into army, it's lingua fraca, and they actually wield more influence than any movie would. Sometimes parents tend to be too protective, and this could be detrimental to the development of their children. In fact his 4 children are always one of the first to view his films once they are made. Mark revealed that 22 words were censored from the movie (hence the PG Clean Edited version that we watched, with the jarring edits).
Re: Too many special effects in the movie
Mark jested: "Wah, give you all a lot also you complain! So hard to please!"
(Seriously, I had no qualms with this if you read my review above). Jack explained that he had always tried to incorporate special effects into this movies whenever he can, and is probably one of the pioneer filmmakers here to do so, even with a relatively tight budget. Mark's take was this was to up the entertainment value for the audience, and despite the effects jazzing things up, it's still quite difficult to film them, as per the challenges that Fann faced during the filming of the soccer scene.
Re: The "love" Scenes Between Mark and Fann
While Mark and Fann are colleagues, they had seldom acted together, much lest being screen couples. He too joked with her that if he would comply if she wanted him to wear a Christopher Lee mask during the filming of the scene! However, while it might look all fun and dandy, it was tough to shoot the scene because of the lack of air conditioning (or you'll hear the humming sound coming from it), and an uncooperative neighbour's dog who kept barking for close to 40 minutes.
Re: The Song-and-Dance Routine (which was my favourite scene)
Mark revealed that it was actually improvised! The dance and even the lyrics, which Jack had to make it up on the spot. And one part where they were wearing raincoats, that was not scripted as well because they were experiencing heavy downpour when shooting the scene in KL.
I thought Mark lived up to his reputation of being quick on his feet in his funny repertoires, and when someone asked if she could ask a question in English, he joked again that of course he does, even though Hokkien is his first language, and English the second, but she should speak slowly so that old men like Jack could understand (ok, it doesn't read funny here, but it is :P)
Re: Mud Pool Scene
The ingredients were chendol (yes, you read that right), squished rotten bananas, 2 packets of flour, chocolate mix, and unsuspecting pee, which was contributed by the villagers who thought that the makeshift hole the crew dug was a toilet for real! And Mark (Fann doesn't know it yet) only realized the pee bit this very same day when they had a radio interview this morning! That scene alone took 10 takes at least (Jack said to wait for it in the making of, probably in the DVD?), where the actors had to constantly pull each other down to avoid any floatation issues, or bobbing heads.
But it's not the most difficult though. Jack added that the soccer scene took almost 7 days to shoot.
And to end the session off, in true blog fashion, Jack and Mark posed with the audience, and you can expect to see that picture on Jack's Blog soon.