Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When Hainan Meets Teochew (当海南遇上潮州)

I Can't Hear You Say...

The requisites for a romantic comedy film will inevitably be good looking, swoon worthy leads against gorgeous backdrops, brought together by a beautiful coincidence that catalyzes a chance meeting into a relationship. The inverse of that will be an unromantic drama with nary the electrifying meeting-of-the-windows-to-one's-soul moment, amongst ordinary folks that make up most of a population who are not blessed with flawless complexions. Rarely will a film utilize this as a premise, but under the hands of Singapore's leading comedic filmmaker Han Yew Kwang, this spells an opportunity not only to make an entertaining tale, but one that incisively grapples with universal themes of acceptance and love.

When Hainan Meets Teochew tells of the struggles of the minority in society against what society in general wants them to be, and who are after what everyone yearns for in emotional terms – not necessarily romantic love, but to have someone for companionship, to care for, to lend a listening ear to, and to support. Seeking acceptance is not easy given the rejection from the onset within their families. Miss Teochew (Tan Hong Chye) has to continuously seek the approval of a stoically silent father to accept him for who he is, coupled with that inner voice of guilt no thanks to the ghost of his brother Guang (Alaric Tay) urging him constantly to be a man, and Hainan Boy (Lee Chau Min) having to bear the brunt of jibes from siblings (played by the director himself, and Sharon Loh, cinematographer for Boo Junfeng's Sandcastle) and pressures from a typical mom (Catherine Sng) to have someone look after her. The titular duo begin as squabbling neighbours in the same block of flats, and through a less than sexy incident involving a stolen/lost bra, Hainan Boy invites Miss Teochew to put up in her flat taking responsibility for the latter to be kicked out of his rental room by the landlord, played by Soundrarajan Jeeva.

Alright, to keep this review (and me) sane, I will refer to the Womanly Man Miss Teochew as a He, and the Manly Woman Hainan Boy as a She. I suppose this forms part of the fun when you watch the film, and you'll soon find yourself surely but surely, gravitate from feeling a little irksome (if you do), to soon forgetting this gender bender and embrace these characters because the net of it is that it is still a heterosexual relationship between a man and a woman in the eyes of the law and in a brilliant scene where a retort is called for, spells that out in the local context which made sense. They cannot help if they're mentally wired differently (to paraphrase a character), and frankly I can imagine how when growing up and being constantly taunted - and Hainan Boy continually so in her workplace, would have ultimately added plenty of steel to their characters and resolve.

Now you may wonder about similar gender bending films like the famous Hong Kong movie He's a Woman, She's a Man directed by Peter Chan and starring luminous leads like the late Leslie Cheung and Anita Yuen in the he-she role, but the actors here in Lee Chau Min and Tan Hong Chye, while not as good looking as established stars, offer convincing performances in portraying their characters, and the brilliance in casting non professional actors here works like a charm, since they are probably playing the comedic offshoots of themselves without necessarily going over the top. Tender moments provide for the actors' challenge to demonstrate their acting range, and they emerge a success.

As I was once told while travelling through the various countries in Europe on a whirlwind tour, things are never strange, just different, and that's precisely the mindset one should adopt when watching this comedy. Yew Kwang's films so far has rarely subscribed to slapstick to draw the laughs, relying on wit and language prowess to elicit the laugh out loud moments from an audience instead. It's no different here, although I felt that the comedy did take a backseat to the themes, dramatic moments and conflicts tossed up, although the stylized dream sequences would likely be some of the funniest sequences in the film for its cheeky mirroring of subconscious desires.

I felt the narrative picked up for the better once the film shifted a gear with the budding romance being threatened by the return of Hainan Boy's ex girlfriend, the hyperactive and spoilt Meihui, played by Yeo Yann Yann to whiny perfection, epitomizing that all is far in love and war, the indecisive, selfish lover that has come back to her ex just because Hainan Boy is always there waiting. And her character's introduction brought on another point of discussion about the losing of the languages our forefathers used for communication, when not only Mandarin was the lingua franca of the Chinese people here like today. A scene has Meihui, a young woman, mocking and finding one of the two languages in the title funny, and is unappreciative of the metaphors and sayings. An earlier scene also has Hainan Boy's siblings trying to learn the language, and picking up only a smattering of phrases, some through guesswork.

Subtly I had felt it made a commentary about the dying Chinese languages outside of Mandarin in Singapore, the older folk as characterized by the leads and their characters' parents all seem all too comfortable in conversing using Hainanese or Teochew, and in the larger real world context here, other Chinese languages as well. I suppose this will be lost in one or two generations later, and unfortunately disappearing with it are the wise words of wisdom, interesting sayings (if you haven't already know the significance of the two language groups in the film with regards to marriage then you have got to watch this film), customs and idiosyncrasies associated with the beauty of that particular language, a pity since there will always be some implicit lessons to be gleaned from.

A quirky comedy that provokes thought, the film is essentially that celebration of the spirit of independent filmmaking in Singapore. Mostly self-funded and with help from cast and crew members who have laboured during their free time to complete this project (took slightly over a year I believe), production values are at their best within its clear financial constraints, but delivered through natural acting by two acting rookies bolstered by the stellar presence of a veteran team, an assembly of actors from Yew Kwang's previous films with the likes of Marilyn Lee, Catherine Sng, Soundrarajan Jeeva, Yeo Yann Yann and Alaric Tay.

Fans of Han Yew Kwang, and those who are wondering what is Singapore's comedy cinema outside of the usual Jack Neo films, will probably like to know that you can watch this film from December 3rd at The Arts House or Sinema Old School and tickets are on sale already. Selected screenings will have the director in person either making an introduction, or to conduct a Q&A session. Also in December will be the debut of his telemovie Love in a Cab, and to usher in the Lunar New Year of the Rabbit, look out for his next theatrical feature film Perfect Rivals which should be due out in late January / early February.

But first, it's When Hainan Meets Teochew, and it's recommended stuff!

Related Links
- Official Movie Website
- Facebook page filled with plenty of photos, videos, and a chronology of the film's development in anecdotal form all posted on the Wall.

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