Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Blue Mansion

Was It The Son With The Violin In The Study?

In Singapore's recent film renaissance, I'm sure many would have seen or heard about the movies that come from the creative minds of Eric, Jack, Royston and Kelvin. My personal journey with local films extended a little beyond the prolific quartet, and it started when I was a teenager, and with a few friends went to watch one of the rare local films that made it to the cinemas. There were others released at around the same era that didn't augur well as a film, but this one did. Like its main protagonist who got inspired by the onscreen "Travolta" and became a disco dancing fan, I left the cinema with a smile on my face, that this was a Singapore film that had quality as much as widespread appeal, and inked an indelible mark that Singapore films can be outrageously fun, with a good story to tell. The Weinsteins agreed too, and the film had a North American theatrical release, the first for a Singapore film. The filmmaker? Glen Goei.

It's been an extremely long pause between Forever Fever (retitiled That's The Way I Like It in the USA) and his latest film The Blue Mansion, some 11 years where he had too many other projects to be listed that were accomplished between these two films, but it was a wait well worth it. Just ask the Japanese fans, who were equally thrilled that they could savour his latest offering just after its world premiere at the Pusan International Film Festival, I've always felt that Forever Fever, which also starred Adrian Pang, was ahead of its time in terms of how a Singapore mass appeal film could be made, without relying on cheap gimmicks, but instead possessed a strong story and an all round excellent delivery from its ensemble cast. The same continues in The Blue Mansion in stylish, sophisticated fashion.

On the surface, there's this three act structure, with the first setting the scene with the premise and the introduction of the myriad of characters of the Wee family primed with the basis for some severe family bickering, the second hammering its way in parallel to a detective duo's acting on an anonymous tip regarding foul play with pretty much a Cluedo being played out within the confines of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Cheong Fatt Sze Mansion in Penang being the titular location, and the last addressing all the secrets that had been furiously buried away, out of sight and out of mind by each character.

But the film isn't as much a comedy and a murder-mystery than it is an excellent character study piece, of who else but ourselves, of the secrets and dreams we harbour, but always giving plenty of leeway to instructions that come ordered from the top, be it from family, companies, and more so from the authorities. The nanny state mentality could well be mirrored with that of the family patriarch, who reserves the last word and instructions, where defying orders would be unthinkable, since they are always made with the best interests of everyone. We're conditioned to be unquestioning "Yes" men, where we're do as we're told from a culture of respecting an elder or a superior, swallowing ego and pride until they seek to explode. This can be seen quite clearly in each of the three siblings in the film.

The Singapore family comes under scrutiny again, In some ways, this is like a continued film exploration into the psyche of contemporary Singaporeans and this society of ours which Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen embarked upon in Singapore Dreaming back in 2006, which examined the trials and tribulations of a heartland family. And like the adage that suggests the rich are bogged down by a different set of challenges in life, the Wee family of The Blue Mansion, headed by the Wee Bak Chuan (Patrick Teoh) the Pineapple King who built his Wee Unlimited empire from scratch, see some fundamentally similar family issues from sibling rivalry to perceived favouritism too, surfacing deep unhappiness beneath the facade of calm, peace and immense material wealth. From a macro-perspective, it's what we normally hear from transient visitors to any country given the short timespan spent would allow for more positive experiences, but I suppose cracks would begin to appear should one stay anywhere long enough. Ho Tzu Nyen's HERE had tackled this societal outlook from a more arthouse perspective earlier this year, while The Blue Mansion did it in more direct, accessible terms.

There are plenty here that reflects the way of our multi-racial and religious harmony, one of which was the schizophrenic way the funeral rites were performed, not only side by side, but simultaneously, leading to great tragic comedy, though admirable in effort which I think wouldn't be pulled off in real life, just an analogy of how far we have progressed in terms of that harmony. Much of the laughs come from the incredibly witty script full of Brit-flavoured ironic humour, which played to the premise of a murder-mystery well, making it wickedly fun as we follow in the footsteps of a wandering Pineapple King spirit as he goes about listening through the thin walls of the mansion in both trying to solve the mystery of his death, as well as the hidden secrets banished to the dark ebbs of memory in episodes best left forgotten, but playing an integral part to its final revelation. And by the way, part of the fun also got derived from connecting the dots with the much talked about allegories seen in the film against that of a prominent family in Singapore too, that is extremely difficult not to have some parallels drawn.

With an international crew and a cast of who's-who from the Singapore-Malaysia theatre scene, it is a battle half-won with quality stamped on the production. Given most of the cast being seasoned thespians on stage, you're guaranteed of some great acting talent under the roof of The Blue Mansion, where the spoken word predominantly in English is proper, though curiously never feeling artificial or forced, perhaps of its theatrical presentation style which was deliberately set out to be. In short, it's a real treat to witness Glen's consolidation of an ensemble who are comfortable in their respective roles, and who knows (and I am wishful thinking here) that this film production could also pave the way for a stage version as well, since the ingredients are all there.

Our local film calendar had ended on a high note with the release of this film, and hopefully this continues well into the new year with a fresh slate of Singapore films raring to go. I only wish that I wouldn't have to wait so long for another film that has in its credits, “A Glen Goei Film”. Highly recommended, and definitely a contender in my top films for 2009!

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