Long before the Carrot Cake Conversations, which borrowed its title from one of the local culinary favourites here, there's the Chicken Rice War made by CheeK (or Cheah Chee Kong) which was a loose adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet given a local spin, with yet another can't-miss food that provides the background for a family feud, what with secret ingredients, and side-by-side food stalls in competition, one Famous Wong's Chicken Rice (The Montagues), and the other Only Chan's Chicken Rice (The Capulets).
Actually, it's not a far fetched idea having 2 stalls coexisting in the same hawker center in close proximity, as there was one (or maybe still there) at my interchange, where both sides employ their own minders to try and pull business to their stalls, where any passers-by will inadvertently be asked if Chicken Rice is their meal of choice. Things are a little civil of course, compared to the full blown verbal barbs and physical violence, with plenty of colourful vulgarities thrown in for comedic effect here in the film. In fact, my favourite scenes involve the brawl between the Wongs and the Chans, as they trade insults in dialects, which degenerate from hilarious touting to vulgarities flying.
So the stage is set with each side being on the warpath, and their offspring fated to fall in love with each other. Only that CheeK planned on his Shakespeare within a Shakespeare to be rather different. Yes it's a story about the star-crossed lovers Fenson Wong (Pierre Png) and Audrey Chan (Lum May Yee), but also about them having to star in a faculty play in an experimental punk rock version of Romeo and Juliet, where Audrey is in the lead role, and her boyfriend Nick Carter (Randall Tan) being the stud who can't deliver his lines, only to be unceremoniously replaced by Fenson the stuttering nerd/geek, much to Audrey's disdain.
CheeK had probably distilled some observations of the Singapore Girl here in crafting a Juliet that's materialistic from the onset. And that actually paints the heroine in a very bad light (i.e. a super bitch). In one fall swoop, we get to see that she prefers Leonardo DiCaprio-wannabes (such as Orked's best friend in Malaysian movie Sepet, something about the Caucasians having it easy should they be in this part of the world), likes to party hard, play childish mind games, and best of all, is totally materialistic through and through. For the infatuated Romeo to start wooing his lady love, he has to break the bank and get her Tiffany diamonds first, before getting some attention showered in which he maximizes with his language skills courtesy of Shakespeare.
Alas the falling in love bits in the film, which is supposed to be central to the story you might think, was nothing more than a very flimsy portion of the entire narrative. Sure you know that they will, but it was a little bit abrupt, and what's with that cheesy sounding song each time they eat each other's mouth (yeah, that's how each kiss between Fenson and Audrey actually looked like). Not to discredit them both, but while they look the perfect couple on screen, they're very much upstaged by the other characters easily each time they come on screen, such as Catherine Sng's Wong Ku (The Fat Woman), Gary Yuen's Vincent Chan the Chan patriarch, Kelvin Ng's Sydney Wong the brother of Fenson, and Teh Su Ching's Penelope Chan the highly sex-charged teenage sister of Audrey. Cheong Wui Seng and Irene Ong rounds up the family members of Wong Terr and Wendy Chan, spouses of Wong Ku and Vincent respectively.
So while this is actually not much of a love story, there's still a lot going on in the film that kept it interesting at almost every turn in large part thanks to the supporting characters pulling their weight in delivering the crazy scenes crafted by CheeK. Like most early Singapore comedies, the authorities are almost always not left spared in being lampooned to look stupid and to speak improperly. Some other unavoidable cliches are how homo-erotic undertones are not too subtly presented, and some rather convenient plot development involving sidekick wannabes. The somewhat childish antics between the feuding families worked wonders in delivering the laughs, as do the translations that fly on screen to translate local colloquialism from vulgarities to meanings of Chinese horoscope which describe succinctly the characters they represent.
There were a number of moments where the 4th barrier was broken in part due to the semi-documentary/news fashion that Chicken Rice War adopted, no doubt allowing the Muppets-like old men in Muthiah (Mohan Sachden) and Ahmad (Alias Kadir) to muscle in with their commentary. But the real star of the show I feel, is the hilarious hamming it up by Jonathan Lim as the sleazy go-go dancing, chicken supplier Hugo A Go Goh, in a role that has to be seen to be believed. If I could but name one character in the spate of Singapore movies that personifies all that is zany, then this character is it, besting even all those created in Talking Cock the Movie.
Watching this now, I felt it was probably a little ahead for its time, but managed to pull it off given some creativity in production. You could tell when innovation was used in telling a story with little money, with costumes and off-focused shots being employed to mask details. The humour here would set the stage for many relatively newer local films today to employ, and so is the predominant use of dialects too (Cantonese) that would be the staple in many local films that make a dent in the box office, as are some cunning social observations fused into the narrative like how wealthy hawker centre operators can be, with a Mercedes being their vehicle of choice. Food too gets prominent screen time in what would also be a staple in local films.
Without a doubt, Chicken Rice War comes recommended, not that it's a perfect film, but it's one that is unfortunately seldom seen, and deserves a lot more credit than the initial flak that it received. For starters, it has shown that we've come a long way, and in some ways (to the detriment of the current state of affairs), this still comes through as a more entertaining production than some of those produced today.
Celebrate Local Feature Films is part of the Media Fiesta 2009, and Cathay will be showing the following films from 19-22 March - 12 Storeys, Be With Me, Invisible City, Eating Air, Chicken Rice War, 881, Singapore Dreaming and Cages.