Han Yew Kwang is a busy man these days, where in recent months we have seen the release of his independent film When Hainan Meets Teochew, a telemovie Love in a Cab, and now his first commercial film Perfect Rivals in a Singapore-Malaysia co-production, which sees talent from both sides of the Causeway and the region coming together and pooling resources to make films, a trend that we'll see continue into the near future since it opens up a combined market with large appetites for horror and comedy genres. I had hopes for this being quite the entertaining film knowing what Yew Kwang can bring to the table with his brand of comedy, but alas the effort shown here is uneven at best.
I've mentioned before that Yew Kwang has a flair for making comedic films with an eye for the unconventional, but somehow I've felt that something got compromised here, starting with a story that he co-wrote the screenplay for hat spells formula with a capital F. This story about rival eateries under intense competition has been done to death by many films out there both overseas and locally, and amongst the relatively modest Singapore filmography, who can not forget CheeK's Chicken Rice War, which had fueding heads of families with offspring that fall for each other romantically. Two scenes which had me shaking my head was that of the health inspector's presence to audit the older of the two premises when inexplicable pests come raining down, and this was lifted off Hong Kong's Chicken and Duck Talk starring two of the three Hui brothers, which remained one of my favourite comedies, and the other being Michelle Yim's cameo that mirrored something off Forgetting Sarah Marshall in spirit.
Knowing the director's works, his narratives have always been kept compact and tight, but this one sprawled especially with the countless number of flashbacks, some necessary to set the current context based on a series of events some 28 years ago, with others to serve little purpose other than to milk some melodrama. It's a pity, because there is so much potential here if I suppose the director was left to his own devices to tell a stronger story, Perfect Rivals could have amped up the rivalry perfectly, from the director's experience with this plot device seen from his series of feature films such as Unarmed Combat and When Hainan Meets Teochew.
But we have the rivalry of Chen Hao (Ha Yu) and Mei Mei (Irene Ang), two loggerheads with their respective Bak Kwa (barbecued pork) shops adjacent to each other, with the stark distinction being the latter's Mei Mei brand the most technologically advanced, and the former's Hao Han branding being a quaint traditional shop touting itself as the best, self-proclaimed of course. The roasted meat here doesn't hold anything significance - at least Chicken and Duck talk had moments emphasizing significance of the food in question - and you can replace Bak Kwa with anything else and still the story would live on, unscathed.
In any case the rivalry got more intense when the King of Bak Kwa title is up for grabs in a contest organized by Evergreen Integrated Resorts, only for what I thought would be a crucial scene to be unceremoniously omitted as a finale, opting for a restraint that would be friendlier to tight budgets. Mei Mei uses her daughter Yuan Yuan (Mindee Ong) who had recently returned from overseas study to spy on her rival and his plan on what to concoct for the competition, and does so by pretending to be a male worker kicked out of Mei Mei joining the Hao Han company. Her androgynous looks plus layers of baggy clothing, often getting stuck in awkward Mu Lan type of situations, surprisingly turn out to be one of the few plus points in the film.
Characterization isn't strong here, and making things worse are the deadpan performances by Josh Lai and Stanlyn Hsu as Chen Hao's sons, the former in a role requiring to be perpetually drunk all the time given that he's non appreciated by his father in anything he does, while the latter is a man-child who thinks he is Superman in very tired scenes that were more immature than funny, especially when it went on for longer than welcomed, though necessary for a turn of events later on in the film. Irene Ang departs from her usual loud and comedic stereotype from her Phua Chu Kang days to be quite serious as the efficiently ruthless matriarch of her family and business, while Pamelyn Chee plays her icy cool daughter perfectly, though again put in situations (such as the restaurant blind date) that was rather uneventful other than to highlight an inner mean streak running in the family. Amongst the ensemble, only Ha Yu and Mindee Ong shone in their roles and had good comic timing.
Call it the War of the Sexes, or Food Wars, its premise never really took off, and languished with very frenzied scenes plastered together to try and move the story forward with little focus, what with the haphazard treatment of the chief villain in the film, and a structure that kept going backwards, although Alaric Tay and Adele Wong. playing the younger versions of Chen Hao and Mei Mei, together with Marcus Chin whose blind master chef provided the seed that destroyed the romance between the two, and instigated the rivalry of today.
There are shades of Han Yew Kwang's signature style in this film, though they are few and far between which is a pity, since everything that's not, could have been led by an invisible hand anyway. Hopefully this would be one of the rare blips that he experiences in his filmmaking journey, and from this make a comeback with a much stronger film. As always, look out for his cameo, seen after a beautifully crafted opening credits scene.