As far as I can recall, the only other time where a short film got the Gala Premiere treatment, was Royston Tan's Sin Sai Hong (新赛凤) back in 2006 where it made its debut at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre. Arguably one of the most expensive local short films to be made (close to S$100K), The Gang got its Gala with plenty of pomp and fanfare, making its debut over at The Grand Cathay tonight, with cast, crew, many members of the film community and invited guests, which also had a 2-song showcase by Maia Lee, making her film debut in what she had revealed as a role that was created for her when producer-director-writer Kelvin Sng decided to cast her in the film.
This 32 minute short is quite the labour of love of a vision that is yet complete. I've tracked the beginnings of Sng's More Than Words since 2007, where I believe it was a flyer I've obtained at the Hong Kong International Film Festival that year. A short film with the title More Than Words became the first output of that vision to capture a story set in 1970s Singapore, starring Fish Chaar (who can be seen fairly recently in Kan Lume's Female Games) as lead character Hao Nan, and Li Yu Tong as Yu Tong, the girl whom Hao Nan falls for. And with 1970s Singapore comes the opportunity to blend romance with the crime situation then, with secret society activities rising to its peak and then declining rapidly from a no-nonsense crackdown from the authorities.
Hence, The Gang (私会党) , the natural evolution from that short film into this mini feature, which serves somewhat like a proof of concept, of Sng's and crew's technical ability to pull off a period piece, and their ability to assemble an ensemble cast to spearhead the film. And those names are a balanced mix of experience, such as Vincent Tee (Blood Ties), Sunny Pang (Perth, Lucky 7), Emma Yong (The Blue Mansion), Adele Wong (The Days), and relative newcomers such as Andie Chen, who now takes over the lead character Hao Nan, Louis Wu, Keely Wee and of course Maia Lee, whom most of Singapore will know from the very first season of Singapore Idol.
Shorts to feature films aren't something new to the Singapore film industry. Royston Tan's 15 is an early example where his short got extrapolated, and Blood Ties the short film by Chai Yee-Wei also went the route from short to feature, securing funding from the Singapore Film Commission's First Feature Film Fund and was first of nine feature films to be off the blocks, making its film premiere last year, with a star-studded cast to boot and a revelation in newcomer actress Joey Yung.
The subject matter of Gangsterism used in a local feature film isn't new too, with 15, Eating Air and The Days tackling teenage gangster characters though set in more contemporary eras. Sng's The Gang goes back in time to our tumultuous 70s, where gangsters aren't your street corner bullies, but men (and women) who had undergone various brotherhood rituals and rites, taking oaths and swearing to protect their “family” against external threats so perceived, for turf, infamy and of course, bragging rights, without thinking twice if needing to resort to extreme physical violence to get heard.
There are a number of positives to take away from this short, which itself is a stand alone story hinting of more. While it's quite a super summarized, fast-forwarded version of Sng's feature plans, one can easily whiff the potential from hidden secrets that characters hide from one another, as well as an anticipated intricate web of relationships between characters that will likely prove to be the crux of the story, especially what I thought to be scenes dedicated to sins of the fathers that the sons will have to pay for. Romance will be something central as well, going by Sng's More Than Words short, and something which was largely absent in The Gang, which traces Hao Nan's journey into the triad gang called Red Luck, touted as the most powerful, in an effort to enlist their help to find his father's killer.
It is the wonderful art direction that I enjoyed tremendously, painstakingly and creatively attempting to shoot against our modern and fast evolving backdrops and environments. There was a scene that took place in a public swimming pool male toilet, and I can't take my eyes off the many posters from yesteryears, about the water rationing situation and campaigns in Singapore, coupled with the Public Utilities Board logo. Such was a time when water was precious, and technology for water recycling and creation almost unheard of here. Then there's the very old-school looking barber shop, which also served in the narrative as a front for triad activities (Hmm, seems like all self-respectable gangster film will feature the ubiquitous barber shop), and let's not forget the costumes and hairdos too, from the bell bottoms, to hair slicked back by tons of Brylcream.
The challenge here faced in this short film, with the eclectic mix of eclectic experience levels, is how to allow each of the cast member to shine through in their very limited screen time. And the experience, or lack thereof shows, with the veterans providing commanding presence, and the relative newcomers struggling with their meatier roles, save for Louis Wu who stood out as the mean, tattooed Ming, the enforcer type in the Red Luck gang. But of course this spells room for improvement in the feature, especially when the cast is given a chance through multiple scenes to hopefully win audiences over with a wider range of emotions.
I felt that the final scene for the film was a little too extended for a short, although it had Vincent Tee at his maniacal best, and a very interesting action sequence that shows off why his character was named as "Xiao Lang" (Crazy Person). I got a little bit distracted by the barb-wired cage which didn't look too barb-wired especially from the long shots, but I guess there's a balance to be achieved between safety and authenticity, which perhaps a larger budget could rectify. But you'll get the idea of what the scene is trying to say, with its throwback to how adulterers of the past were punished.
Speaking of authenticity (pardon the intentional pun), while the theme, the sets, costumes and such were definitely close to the 70s, I was thinking about how much it would take (or irk the censors) if this film, or the feature one at least, for it to be predominantly in Hokkien, or any other Chinese languages than Mandarin. After all, it was because the Chinese then were speaking in various tongues that the Speak Mandarin Campaign got its roots and launched in 1979. Since the short already is rated M18, this could also allow for a more appropriate language to be used. Not to say that Mandarin cannot be, but I felt it'll cut a little closer to reality and memories of the past. Maybe the powers that be can really cut this film (or the feature since The Gang is already completed) some slack, and allow exceptions (if necessary) based on artistic merit and an attempt by the filmmaker to reflect the times that have thus been changed permanently, and lost.
All in all, The Gang had set out to generate buzz, and that it has done. This labour of love is not over yet, with the raising of funds to get the feature going. As reported by SINdie, the feature will cost up to about S$2M, making it one of Singapore's most expensive films as well (I believe the most expensive to date is Glen Goei's The Blue Mansion). Here's to best wishes and luck to the cast and crew, and I hope to see the feature film get made, and to grace our screens, perhaps this time with more grit, attitude and leaving audiences with an unforgettable local movie experience!
Unfortunately my camera doesn't work well in hall settings which are dim, so you've got to stay tuned to the Facebook Page for some photos and probably video from the Gala Premiere of the short film. Today's gala also featured the trailer of the short film to whet the audience's appetite, before a stage introduction by the cast and director. Maia Lee then took over for her showcase of 2 Mandarin songs Qian Yan Wan Yu and Zhi Guai Wo, the second which was unfortunately marred by hiccups in the sound system. Which if anyone from Cathay is reading this, may I humbly suggest that the Grand Cathay be fit up with some spotlights for on-stage meet-and-greets so that those on stage will not always be in shadow, and of course to spruce up the sound system to allow live performances.