The man in the Citibank diner advertisement would probably tear his remaining hair out at A Big Road since it is a true blue "arty-farty" film, and his dinner date probably got the reaction right as well. I had held out getting tickets for this world premiere, and if Kan Lume's Female Games was screening instead, no prizes where I would have put my dollars at. But that film was withdrawn, and the buzz for this was building, and I had to check out what it's about, no?
Of late we have a number of Singaporean filmmakers who have ventured overseas and made feature length films, from Science Fiction (Gene Generation) to Drama (Slam!) and even documentaries to tie in world sporting events like the Olympics with efforts like Mad About English and Boomtown Beijing, and also not forgetting my favourite filmmaking duo of James Leong and Lynn Lee who have made gems like Homeless FC and Aki Ra's Boys, with their latest film ready some time end of this year, so that's something to look forward to. Alec Tok would be a name to add to this list of growing filmmakers spreading their wings abroad with this debut effort.
A Big Road chronicles three women in Shanghai, and from the get go at the lengthy prologue at the Shanghai Railway Station, it screams art, requiring plenty of getting used to with its focus-out-of-focus shots within the frame, cuing you into certain points, yet inevitably raising questions just what was going on. I tried hard to concentrate, then let go to follow the flow, but tried as I did, I just couldn't grasp what the intent and meaning was, if any.
The scenes floated from one to another, relying a chock load on your own imagination to fill the pieces in between. We see a lady dressed in a white coat drifting around in a voyeuristic fashion as if in limbo in our world, whose point of view consists of specific colours on people, and is probably the chorus to this artificial play as we see what she wants us to see. Which also includes two feuding families at a dinner table, a particular Mrs Zhao purchasing a new born baby girl from poor villagers, and Xiao Fang (Liu Hongli) the kept woman who's sold by her own mother for profit.
While you can see immediate parallels in the plight of women whatever their ages being sold for money, one can't stop wondering what Alec's intent was, and it's always curious when a man crafts woman-centric stories and scenes especially when they fail to resonate and get the intended emotions through. It's one thing sticking a camera and letting it record on a long, extended take, but another if wanting to communicate emotions. Time was felt heavily, and sad to say no time was properly invested to develop and establish characters as they came and go in a generic, blur fashion.
The mid-point was especially amusing when some folks decided to use it as a break to answer phones / visit the toilet / stretch their legs. It reaffirms that girls do take an extremely long time to dress up, putting on and putting off, looking at oneself at the mirror preening, and this went on for some 10 minutes. From then on the film switches gears even when the engine's not ready to shift up, with a flurry of scenes coming and going involving a man wanting to break off an engagement (check out that Tak-Giu T-Shirt, Jacen!), and decided to go all Man by dealing with a Father's love, with flashbacks from his death bed, which turned out to be emotionally dry. Characters were crying, but the damage was done and you'd just don't care except to wonder when the brakes will be pulled, though one still had a mahjong scene to navigate through.
A Big Road may be too wide (in the number of issues it wanted to showcase perhaps) and too long, and without clear directions, is risking alienating an audience from it and losing them. That Citibank diner guy would have new found friends.