My recollection of Malaysian singer Ah Niu, is his signature tune about a boy who's longing for a girl he fancies to look his way. Who would have thought that years later, Ah Niu's directorial debut on film is an effort that brings back plenty of nostalgia, and one wonders if this film has any references from his own past, and first love. Entitled Ice Kacang Puppy Love, the film boasts an impressive lineup of Malaysian / Malaysian born actors (much like Kelvin Tong's Kidnapper) and singers, which goes to show the tremendous amount of talent available just across the Causeway.
It's a whimsical romance that embarks on the slice of life in episodic fashion, with a kaleidoscope of events, characters, emotions and plenty of comedy to tell a tale of growing up and leaving one's comfort zone. It's a story of first loves for many of the characters in their formative years, where like the ice kacang dessert, contains plenty of sweetness which inevitably melts away, and the sheer number and variety of nuts and beans contained within which mirrors the vast amounts of different characters that get assembled, and set around an old fashioned coffeeshop, a sight unseen in Singapore these days for all our modernized, sterile venues for a morning cuppa.
One cannot even fathom the number of subplots that Ah Niu deftly handles in his film, giving each enough screen time to tell their own story, yet never crowding out or cannibalizing one another, with a tale for each of the ensemble lot of characters being featured, spanning two generations. It begins with the parents of Botak (Ah Niu), played by Tong Yoon Choy and Yap Chu Hock as his dad and mom respectively, offering a stall at their coffeeshop for one of their friends Yue Feng (Angela Chan), an abused woman separated from her husband (played by Eric Moo), and with her daughter in tow. Nicknamed Fighting Fish for her feisty character and her pet, Lee Sinje's character grows up to be the tomboy whose eyes can shoot darts (n an interesting observation, she played Hong Dou in The Drummer and behaves in a similar fashion; Hong Dou being a key ingredient in Ice Kacang) and is the object of affection of Botak, spending plenty of time painting her portraits in secret, and too shy to let his feelings be known.
So begins the puppy love one has for the other, but of course life is a bit more complicated than that, full of trials and tribulations to overcome, even if one lives in a small idyllic town. The supporting characters, played by Gary Chaw as chief troublemaker Ma Li Fan like a typical sam-seng-kia (ruffian), his silent sister Ma Li Bing (Fish Leong) who has the hots for Botak, charcoal seller Prince (Victor Wong) whom Botak's fat sister (Lim Ching Miau) admires, it's all primed for a web of messy love lives for each, fused with well timed comedy that hits plenty of right notes to put one in the mood for love.
But it's not all just about that emotion which gives us a dizzy spin, but about the bitterness that comes with it at times. And each character will soon learn that life isn't all that easy, and they have their respective challenges to overcome, such as Botak's perpetual inability to make that perfect, Dad-approved cuppa, which baffles him since it's the same coffee powder and the same milk used. It's likely to allude to the fact that attitudes play a large part in the making of who we are, and with environmental factors being put constant, it's all up to the individual whether we want to leave our comfort zones and do as we dream, or be held back by negativity, made worse by those with big mouths.
It's fairly expected that with a whole cast of talented singers and musicians, the music soundtrack and accompaniment for the film, is excellent par none, from the main theme to the romance track, there's enough here to pepper the film without making this a musical. The production sets are beautiful, and at once they put you back into the era of a simpler, laid back life, complete with plenty of childhood games like marbles (go li), fighting fish, and yes, even incidents such as the transmission of head lice, hence Botak's name.
Ah Niu has a pretty impressive film as his debut feature, and as mentioned, like a typical ice kacang, has plenty of something for every movie goer. It's a delightful film crafted beautifully like a veteran filmmaker, with wonderful cinematography to bring out that extra flavour of nostalgia. Stay tuned during the end credits for a small scene, and this is a film that I'll highly recommend. Now to sink my teeth into some cool ice kacang!