Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Money No Enough 2 (钱不够用2)

What Happened, Guys?

I am quite unsure why Jack Neo had decided to call this "Money No Enough" 2, because frankly it's a departure from the crux of the original movie, and the characters too are totally different, despite starring the same main trio of himself, Mark Lee and Henry Thia. Perhaps it's to bank on the resounding box office success of its predecessor some 10 years ago in getting the crowds back into the halls, in an attempt to repeat that miracle.

While I am relatively tolerant of Jack's movies to date and have seen almost all of it in the theatres when released, unfortunately Money No Enough 2 has none of the charm that its original possess with its raw spontaneity, and although the production values here are definitely ramped up, and Jack now having a more assured hand in direction, alas the story seemed to have fallen behind and what came through actually looked very tired, and in dire need of some tightening as the narrative started to go all over the place. The last third of this over 2 hours movie wallowed in heavy melodrama, which seemed to have followed an invisible hand to expand something similar in Money No Enough 1.

And what of the Jack formula, which is almost staple in all his movies, such that he's getting dangerously close to branding his movies into having jabs at government policies, drawing inspiration from contemporary social issues, and being a wonderful advertising darling and a product placement showcase.

For the first part, yes, the first scene opens with a Singapore skyline of the near future, complete with patriotic national day songs sung in Hokkien no less, in full parody. And it doesn't take Jack too long before harping on really contemporary issues like price hikes and the ERP gantries (labelled as EPR here), together with mock rallies and strangely violent demonstrations of throwing the gantries away, playing to full effect what most of the drivers here would like to see happen, but lack the balls to. Jack doesn't mince his words here as he launches into social commentary of our contemporary psyche, of complaining ad nausem about many things, but fail to take action to effect change for the better. His characters in the movie try, like Henry Thia's obvious fight against the law, and the outcome is almost always similar - we just can't fight a good fight.

But Jack's story and script do have some balls of its own, and he continues to push the envelope here. I cannot recall any movie to date being quite blatant with characters jibing at "PAP", rather than the more general term of "government" or the "authorities". However, he did pull the punches back and had Vivian Lai's character be the pro-government mouthpiece in order to provide an expected and more balanced viewpoint in airing coffeeshop criticisms. And what more, the Health minister in question here was a lookalike, a far cry from his usual random "ministerial" like actors like the one featured in Just Follow Law. Aside from that, the other innovation for a local film is how Jack continues to employ technical wizardry in his movies with special effects, and here, a rather huge recreation of future landscapes, as well as a one-lap Formula 1 night race that will grace our roads come September. While it does look cartoony at times (it ain't no Speed Racer after all), you have to admit that overall it looks quite decent, for local film standards anyway, since they could be used quite inconspicuously until the end credits NG reveal some of the moments they were used.

But while he may have taken a few steps forward, the huge step backward would be the heavy product placements. While I am rather OK with it because film financing doesn't come easy in our tiny island, here it becomes a tad too blatant, with television commercials making their appearances in TV sets, and having brands from banks to drinks being thrown around. All the male characters only guzzle Carlsberg (probably the best beer in the world), and non-alcoholics drink the same brand of green or chrysanthemum tea. And you can rattle the brands on, like Singtel, OCBC, BMW, and I like Mitsubishi's appearance best, where characters comment about the new air conditioner being powerful, and a cut shot to a spanking new AC on the wall. Such is how many would be up in arms to say that MNE2 should have enough Money from product placements, and had sold out to unabashedly, unsubtle ads, especially in the first 10 minutes. Yes it can be a statement of consumerism and brand consciousness amongst us locals since the characters do grapple with status consciousness (with a branded bag being able to sooth one's day in court you know?) but I guess it's all in the delivery - a stark in your face approach might not sink in well.

But you can't deny that Jack continues to have a firm grasp in translating our social woes for the big screen, drawing upon plenty of material in the last few years to bolster and bloat the storyline, ranging from en-bloc sales, poisonous health supplements, MLMs, old folks and the aging population issue, as well as healthcare and rising hospital costs. I thought he had a keen eye on contemporary family squabbles too where siblings and their spouses cannot come to terms with being filial and being selfishly practical, but here in dwelling upon this primary issue, Money No Enough 2 detracted from its money issues indirectly and spent significant amount of time on melodrama, especially playing up on Lai Ming's role as the unappreciated mother of 3.

While the original movie was probably almost laugh a minute with its skit and delivery, this one was bogged down by its second half, though the laughs never really started in the first place as the audience I was with found themselves quite hard pressed to laugh at anything. Don't expect a lot of comedic moments, as genuine laughter comes very few and far between. You still get the usual coffeeshop talk and complementary loan-sharking characters, but truly it's Funny No Enough. The movie probably scored a coup too in having the Ming Zhu sisters (the real voices behind the Papaya Sisters in Royston Tan's 881) in front of the camera performing with some shades of rushing from stage to stage worked into the story, and with Getai and Hokkien songs being staple in its soundtrack, Jack has indeed fired first salvo at Royston's upcoming 12 Lotus, even using (coincidentally?) one song about wishing for a million bucks.

Akin to a line in its opening song, while there are quarters who will complain on Jack Neo's movie being too "Jack Neo" for its own good, the fate of his movies is similar to that of our ruling political party. While we may complain (which we do best) and be unhappy about certain things, when the time comes for judgement, we return them to power, and we give Jack the box office returns of more than a million dollars, which in my opinion this movie will probably find easy to reach. Perhaps we hate to admit that we are still rather entertained by his movies in general, despite obvious thorny issues with the flaws in this one as already mentioned. Does Jack deserve a box office failure with this movie? I hate to see that happen, seriously, and I think his pedigree and appeal will buffer anything unexpected.

And by the way, at the end of the movie, there is a moment where a telephone number is flashed on screen. According to the official movie website, it's actually a bona fide contest where you need to respond to the number you should dial, and retain your movie ticket stub. If the sketchy ad is to be believed, then the prize should be the car that Henry Thia's character drove around in the movie. It has big headlights, and comes with airbags, ok?

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