I've just about started reading Amir Muhamad's book on 120 Malay Movies, and as highlighted the Malay films from the era long gone intertwines closely with the relationship Singapore has with Malaysia, and I thought that it's also holding true in today's context of filmmaking. Be it the local independent film scene or the mass commercial films, the cross-Causeway cooperation and productions seem to be on the rise these days, with the latest being PCK The Movie, and other comedies ranging from Ah Long Pte Ltd to Love Matters, just to name a few. On the indie front, Kan Lume has also directed the modestly budgeted Female Games set in Malaysia and starring two good looking female leads, which is something of a similar strategy adopted in Jeffrey Chiang's Like Sunshine After Rain, shot in 2008.
Julie Hoi aka Julie Woon, the model-host from Malaysia (and one time race queen too), adorns the cover of this month's FHM Malaysia, and frankly from the movie poster, one could have gathered that this could be our equivalent of any Nia Vardalos film with the sunshine bright demeanour and the toothy grin (somehow the image of Vardalos comes to mind). However, the film is not a romantic comedy, and neither does Julie's character Jia Wei possess that sprightly character in her.
Instead, we learn from the start that she's an abused woman, and finally deciding that enough is enough, she packs up, and takes a bus to Taiping in an attempt to escape from her man. In Taiping, Perak, land of tranquil and natural beauty, she walks kilometers which in the meantime serves as a tourism video of some of the sights and sounds of the town, before deciding to settle at the simple Peking Hotel where her room comes without an attached bathroom, and through serendipity, work at The Piano Cafe, a charming place operated by Hui Jin (Cindy Chen) and her chef (Tony Wong), the people who will inevitably touch her life, and show her that life is not always doom and gloom, and that opportunities for happiness still exist in the world. If they can get her to move out of Peking Hotel first, where she continues to have nightmares (no, not a horror film) and jump at every telephone ring.
If I have the license to coin this term (and please let me know if it's coined before, or I will claim it as my creation), this film is the exact equivalent of a Bromance, which I now call Sismance (OK, laugh if you like, I'm getting this into Oxford). If Bromance means two male characters being chummy without veering toward homoeroticism and neither character being outwardly gay, then Sismance can be used to describe the relationship between Jia Wei and Hui Jin, who share a lot of time together doing chummy things like jogging, hiking, and visiting places of interest like a charcoal kiln, besides being touchy-feely at every first opportunity, arm in arm, head on shoulder, etc. They're perfectly straight mind you, and we learn that even Hui Jin was once as depressed as Jia Wei, only to have the mythical powers of The Piano Cafe change her outlook toward life, and she in turn now positively influencing Jia Wei.
I'd like to love this film, but I can't for the fact that one cannot hide behind being modestly budgeted to deliver a flimsy storyline delivered through arthouse pretense, and acting that is honestly, quite atrocious, resulting in some scenes, which are supposed to be emotional, becoming the unintentional comedy. Some models and beauty queens can act (offhand I think of India's), but others can't, and this is quite pronounced in this film. Between the two, Cindy Chen fared a little bit better, but unfortunately Julie Woon doesn't have the emotional range for the role, and through the narrative gets reduced to revealing plenty of thigh, and modelling for many bedroom scenes in nighttime casual sleepwear. There's also something about vocal narration in a film, that unless you have the voice for it and being able to emote through words, it normally backfires if the vocal chords turn out to be flat and disengaging to the narrative – reading from a script will normally be the culprit. For some reason, for a film with Mandarin, I'd always prefer it to be in this language over English, because of a certain degree of romanticism in the former, but that's just me.
There's also this scene with an inexplicable tree branch getting in the way of the shot, which Cindy Chen gets momentarily out of character in noticing its disturbing, distracting presence. That one took the cake, as the branch (a thick one by the way) crept from the left side of the frame. Some compromises will naturally be expected since a limited budget constrains certain technical aspects, and the quality of audio recording suffered. Being reliant on sponsorships also meant opportunities for product placement, and Spritzer comes up fairly frequently, even having Jia Wei caress its water bottles a little bit too incessantly at the Spritzer bar (yes, one exists).
But of course there are good points, and as an intended ode to Taiping, I felt the film did enough in featuring some of the famed landmarks and nuances, such as a fog-laden park scene, and plenty of varied landscapes. The film also becomes an accidental historical archive for some of the areas it shot in, with The Piano Cafe no longer existing, so this is a video record of what once was. The music used in the film is also quite inspiring, and the song performed by Melina William which shares the same title is comparable to a powerful ballad that unfortunately got milked ad nauseam.
The final act which involves Hui Jin's sister Hoon (Ang Pei-Chern) also failed to allow the film to reach its intended climax in showing the profound changes in Jia Wei's character, as Pei-Chern also delivered an unbelievable performance as the prodigal daughter who's back home too late. Perhaps the only character here who entertained is the apple-crunching chef, who brings the slightest of comedy with his wooden character holding a candle for Jia Wei. Tony Wong also chipped in to edit the film, which I felt for its budget, should still be able to justify a proper, stronger storyline and a more able cast to deliver it, rather than to rush through this throwing caution to the wind.
The World Premiere today should have deserved a better turn out, as no more than 15 persons were present in the 138 (thereabout) seater Sinema Old School hall. Producer-Writer-Director Jeffrey Chiang was in attendance for a short presentation and Q&A after the screening, so for those who missed it, here it is:
Part 1 of 2
Part 2 of 2
Like Sunshine After Rain is Sinema Old School's Fictional Friday programme in August. Click here to check the screening schedule.
Movie Page at Sinema.sg