The Lunar New Year period has always been the period where we can look forward to a slew of films from Hong Kong and Singapore, with the former putting out films related to the festivities, the genre being comedy and having an ensemble cast of the who's who in the industry. Singapore's offering tend to be the expected tentpole from J-Team Productions, a comedy of course, but never (as far as my memory goes) about the festivities of the period. With Raintree Pictures putting out It's a Great Great World, its former head honcho's Homerun Asia had churned out its first feature with Homecoming, teaming up once again with the phoenix which is Jack Neo, who's making a comeback after the much talked about scandal, slowly but surely.
With this release, I dare say it'll be interesting for local audiences if the gauntlet has been thrown to expect relatively big budgeted productions with ensemble casts to hook the heartlanders to making a beeline for the cinemas. It's an open secret that cinemas here rake in huge amounts during this period, so while it's interesting to see how these two local films will fare against other offerings, what I would celebrate instead is that Singapore finally has her own own festival specific film offerings (like Hong Kong's) to usher the Lunar New Year. Yes, Homecoming probably marks the first such film, a co-production with Malaysia since it opens up a bigger market, as well as having the narrative reflect what's essentially the biggest deal in the Lunar calendar with the Reunion Dinner, where there are bound to be Causeway crossings by relatives on either side.
As such, there are two main threads to the narrative, with each taking place in Singapore and Malaysia. The first deals with an arrogant Hong Kong chef Daniel (Mark Lee) who is tasked to whip up a "fantabulous" meal for the reunion dinner of the Culture Minister of Singapore (erm, no such post now actually). One of the top chefs in Singapore, he thinks his French cuisine background means he can hire and fire on a whim, leaving his restaurant manager (Jacelyn Tay) in a fix in hobbling together a makeshift kitchen crew made up of family, and to avoid disastrous end results with clash of personalities.
The second involves Karen Neo (Jack Neo) and son Ah Meng (Malaysian singer Ah Niu) who are travelling from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur with Daniel's famous Yu Sheng, to meet up with relatives for that all important Reunion Dinner, as well as to matchmake the single Ah Meng. Expect hilarious road blocks in what would be a home for the holidays type of setting, much akin to many Thanksgiving and Christmasy movies that Hollywood churns out, with subplots here involving relatives such as a yuppie couple (played by Huang Wenhong and Rebecca Lim) who are adamant about skipping the Dinner just to jetset to Bali on a free holiday, a madcap taxi driver (Afdlin Shauki) who gets into various tussles with Karen, and chef Daniel's daughter (Koe Yeet) to link the narrative threads together as she leaves Singapore in a huff to look for her mom in Malaysia.
The stories here all deal with the importance of family, acceptance, and set the tone on the meaningfulness of tradition, together with the cultural and social significance of the Reunion Dinner, and doing so without sounding very preachy is a plus point. While each subplot deals with a singular idea, putting them all together will probably reminisce of one's frustrations and joy if you're celebrating the same come a few days time. It's this feel good, fuzzy factor that wins in the end of course, and ultimately that's the feeling you'll end up with when the end credits roll with out takes, leaving you to anticipate one's own celebrations that are hopefully minus the drama.
Homecoming triumphs and stamps its mark because of its simple, succinct stories that never seemed like a drag, with gags knowing when enough is enough (save for that "fantabulous" word that got overused). Everything happened for a reason, and nothing got wasted, just for the sake of. Technically, this film boasted a brilliantly executed opening tracking shot following Jacelyn Tay into chef Daniel's restaurant and kitchen (it's the National Museum actually) which I thought could have continued for a bit longer, and I don't recall any local film employing or attempting this to date, so that's a feather in the cap.
Mark Lee continues chalking up points for his portrayal of characters, here as the arrogant chef, expertly and comically tackling accented dialogue once again, having to nail the Malaysian-Chinese accent in Ah Long Pte Ltd, to the Hong Kong one here, sounding really authentic. It's been quite the 2011 so far for him as he added directing to his resume, and being one of the seniors in J-Team Productions, I think we can expect a lot more from this funnyman in the near future. And what about Jack Neo? Cross dressing is nothing new since he had done Liang XiMei and Liang PoPo before (the latter in a feature film too), so I suspect his Karen Neo is an attempt to regain trust from his heartlander supporters. After all, his other two characters were what had sealed his fame in recent years, so perhaps Karen Neo is his ticket back with some facetime in front of the camera instead. Chemistry with Ah Niu as mother and son is somehow believable as they anchor half the film.
Directed by Lee Thean Jeen, Homecoming succeeds on all fronts in being that Lunar New Year related film for exactly this period of time, where friends and family gather over food and good company, to take stock of health and wealth, and various good tidings. For all the Singapore-Malaysia co-productions thus far, this one had a point to do so aside from a business reason making way for something reflective of real life, and made the most sense.