If I want to be truly nutty and live up to summarizing The Spirit Compendium in a nutshell, then perhaps an Ascii picture will tell a thousand words: -_-"
Going by the synopsis, stills and posters, one would have expected a supernatural thriller at the very least. But you know what they say about expectations, and this being the first feature film of writer-director Foo Fung Koon, I have had friends who have given me that wry look and stifled laughter when I told them that I am prepared to be scared. And the usual trappings of a first film, with its raw delivery and unpolished feel, comes an accidental, unintentional comedy.
If I may be blunt, this movie had a lot of potential given its breadth, but instead of focusing on the depth of its available material, everything became superficially scattered, and ultimately, emotionally empty for a story that hinges very much on its characters being able to engage the audience into the strange habits that they are getting themselves into. Granted it's a spiritual movie, but it takes its unrealism to an extreme, as The Spirit Compendium becomes stuffed with plenty of unbelievable, inexplicable, and terrible scenes which were disparate and don't carry the narrative forward, preferring to linger around some very childish homo-eroticism.
Tom (Benjamin Ng) is your typical clueless hero, inheriting mythical prowess from lineage as well as after long stints of training led by a mysterious monk from the Heavenly School of I-Ching. As with all doubtful heroes, he suffers the unnecessary loss of fiancee Bella (Maylene Loo), a chirpy toothy girl who only kisses cheeks, has amazing orange-squeezing techniques of filling up a full glass of juice with 1 orange, and whose tough running regime to keep slim does her in. Nursing his broken heart for more than a year, he is reminded of his obligation to complete his training at the School, and is given the mythical items of some beads, and the titular Spirit Compendium, which functions as a glorified 8-Ball, where you have to tweak your question to get the answers you want, and at times functioning like an Ouija Board when meddlesome ghosts lend a hand. So for this full time National Serviceman who's about to ORD soon, you know where his spare time is spent on - the occult. In essence, this is your quintessential Luke Skywalker, given his father's lightsabre and taught the use of the Force.
Living alone after the death of his parents, his house mate May (Foyce Lim) is introduced so that she will function as a fodder to contribute to the questioning of Tom's sexuality. She's an unlucky person, because only those down on their luck can see spirits. And as if seeing spirits is not enough, she has to suffer from being possessed by her sleep disorder, of being unable to harness the powers of her trance where she reenacts scenes and is able to straddle between the spiritual and earthly realms, all the while being suspicious of everyone, expressing that through her wooden expression of one - just by having her eyes wide open.
And given Tom's penchant for massage sessions in his bedroom, in comes hunky Sam (Michael Kwah), whose parents can't support him with his university fees and are suffering a downturn in their business. He's an expert masseuse, so much so that his tittie twisters, nipple pinchers and around-the-abs power rubs provide so much pleasure to Tom that they both agree to move in together and sleep naked on the same bed with each other. You begin to feel sorry for Sam, as he drew the shortest end of the stick having to live with 2 weirdo roommates, but in a high inflation environment, the draw of cheap rental is just too attractive, though he had to pay the price of being sexually violated, falling sick, and then finding himself stuck in limbo as a result for his conduct. You read me right, it just doesn't add up, and it could actually become worse.
At this point, you can't help but to chuckle at the meek Matrix-like references. You have a character dressed in white, a bald old man akin to The Architect who spouts mumbo jumbo against a really bad CGI backdrop, and his female counterpart as a power hungry Oracle who wants Tom's power items so that she can power up and rule the spiritual universe. But you know both as being fraudulent, because they're just acting as mouthpieces for sections of the I-Ching, religion, and philosophy, without bringing any deeper meaning to their supposed wise words of wisdom. In fact, one of them likes to play silly guessing games too. Without natural charisma or intelligence brought to their characters, they serve little or no purpose, except in an attmpt to add certain gravitas which backfired badly.
What will make you really sit up in this movie with disbelief, are the scenes of massage, which seem to be the silver bullet of the movie. Everyone seems to be really into it, being serious practitioners or swearing by its effects. Got possessed? No problem, a massage will exorcise your blues away. Can't get over a girlfriend? A massage will remind you it's better than sex. Need a change of underwear? Hey, a massage will give you opportunity to take it all off. In a ridiculously conceived scene that lingered on artificially enhanced cod pieces, you wonder what all that showing of well toned bodies is for. And in a separate scene, it becomes even more absurd to want to tape down a session for "educational purposes", which of course happened to serve as a convenient plot element 30 seconds into the scene.
I guess in the hands of a rookie, the usual pitfall is probably to try everything, no doubt having a possible rationale of letting the first film be one's film school, where you would allow anything and everything to go wrong, from an experimental standpoint. So we have special effects, lots of it, which was quite poorly rendered, and brought down production values by a couple of notches. Also, like my friend Jeremy mentioned, we don't really need anymore explanation of the 7th month, given that relatively superior films with box office success have already included them to death. But I guess to foreign audiences, some background knowledge won't be that bad, but what's worse if for foreigners looking at this and shaking their heads in the belief that Singapore Cinema had taken a few steps back. I also felt that the subtitles were hastily done as they looked sloppy with random grammatical, spelling and even punctuation errors, and when it comes to translating the heavier I-Ching material, it just failed. Editing was also choppy and inconsistent, going at a frentic pace in the beginning.
But having start off from rock bottom does have its advantages, because if lessons are learnt the hard way from this movie, the only way to go is up. The score comes on and off abruptly, with songs that can raise goosebumps. The actors come across as quite jittery in their delivery and are consciously unsure of what they're doing, whether it makes sense. I suspect if bold moves in having characters dropped, and having the story very narrow and focused, coupled without the need to explain things in verbatim, this might have milked its potential a lot more. Storytelling technique definitely needs to be improved, without the need to resort to CGI gimmicks - remember, some of the best scenes in the Matrix are not the loud and brash action sequences, but those in an all white room which distract you from the message delivered.
Having a real Spirit Compendium will definitely help too, to know in advance if you're going the wrong way with this movie, If I may offer my own Compendium statement as a companion piece for this movie, it will be that "In life, you sometimes need unnecessary evils to help maintain a fine equilibrium".