You just can't put one of Singapore's most prolific film directors down. Having to lie a little bit low since his romantic affairs outside of his marriage came to light, and acting in films that curiously have him in drag, whether supporting roles like in Homecoming or cameos like in the recent Petaling Street Warriors, he's never quite far from leaving the scene especially now since the dust has relatively settled. And you have to give it to the writer-director in being a little bit shrewd to be able to plot a comeback during his favourite film festive period where his supporters would be out in full force for that all-family cinema outing to draw on their Lunar New Year goodwill, and to dig deep into his filmography to reinvent that one film that made him more than a household name.
It's a big return to the familiar Jack Neo signatures that feature in almost all his films. For what We Not Naughty is worth, I can't shake the fact that it is really a quasi-sequel to his I Not Stupid series. There's his grown up child actors whom he had made stars of returning as teenagers now to star in Jack's comeback film to repay the faith he had in them when they were nobodies, and some major product placements by his film's sponsors from the onset, some very much blatantly inserted and praised in the narrative, as a middle finger to most of his detractors who shudder that his films are no more than scenes put together for the excuse to run commercials. And what is a Jack Neo film without his usual style of social commentary that snapshots the shape of local society today (and complete with made up newspaper headlines)?
You have to admit Jack has plenty of stories to tell and raw energy to consistently make them into films, while some may argue about his production values where the films tend to look more video than, well, film. And it's probably the same here for this movie, with Jack's background in television that this will at best look like a telemovie, rather than a standard film feature that deals with film language. There were no aesthetically pleasing shots, and the editing was left to be desired, coupled with really suspect pacing especially in its extended climax that had to take place in Malaysia because, like most feature films in Singapore these days, funding and resources also come from across the Causeway.
Jack's films of late have almost always centered around the family unit, and it's no different with We Not Naughty. There's the trio siblings of Sean Lee as Wei Jie, Cheryl Yeo as his sister and their younger brother Ah Bao (Ivan Lo) who steals the limelight in the first act of the film, whom I thought will be the centerpiece of this story since he had featured so prominently in the marketing trailers. It was left as only a thought, before Jack reduced this kid actor's role to a supporting piece and casted the limelight back on Sean Lee and Joshua Ang who play best of friends (what else?), the latter as Jian Ren whose separate family unit is of a different social standing, involving a subplot and token character background setting where his brother (Amos Yee) is the blue eyed boy of their rich mom (Yan Li Ming) for his successes in school and English twang. You see, in Jack Neo's film world, children who do not get proper attention and guidance, or if the parenting is suspect, end up street kids who have disciplinary issues, and at worst, join gangs.
In many ways this is probably Jack's darkest film yet, with themes exploring the darker side of human nature, from gangsterism, loan-sharking, internet bulling which is made more harrowing when the teens see absolutely no wrong in their action, and instead cite some unheard of (probably I'm on a different generation) of Internet laws of the land. There will be a corner where criticisms stem from Jack having no real creative juices other than to flip the papers for 6 months, taking what's hot, popular and definite talking points based on their airtime on local news, and spend the next 6 months writing the screenplay and turning them into films. Personally I feel this is a discipline he had stuck to rather successfully, and in doing so managed to captured the social transformations or issues that have plagued our city state over the last decade, and becomes an interesting historical journey.
Sometimes the scenes are subtle, while others loud and blatant such as sneaking in the commentary about the HDB residential makeup, where the boys relate how foreigners have crept into our living space, but of course done with a natural comedic flair. Mentioned in passing were the words "PAP" which I believe marks the first time it's used, rather than the more generic "government". Comedy though seemed a little lacking this time round, with the focus on heavy melodrama such as the systematic breakdown of the working class family unit (that has a hypocritical mom played by Xiang Yun) brought about by the ills of the casino, that comes with plenty of shouting that you see in the daily episodes of local television productions, almost always centered around money issues and bad people to people relations amongst family members.
Education continues as a highlight from the I Not Stupid series. Perhaps one of the more offensive jokes from those movies is the moniker for the ITE tertiary route, where Jack got some flak for condemning students streamed there as "It's The End". It's almost clear as crystal that he's making some amends for that with that final frame of the film as a phrase of encouragement before the credits that came out, and with the narrative putting its central characters as Wei Jie and Jian Ren in a fictitious ITE who turn out fine (albeit not exactly role models through the course of the story), and having pedigree, caring and persistent school teachers (Daniel Chan from Hong Kong, no less) who never give up on finding solutions for their troubled teens, and recognizing their innate talent that is honed and developed.
As Jack had mentioned before and continuing along the same vein, this movie features loads of CG and effects, and they're not as raw as when he first employed technology in his earlier films. The jazzed up opening credits shot by a helicam is something worth looking out for, being the first time it's used in a local film, and other CG filled moments looking a little less artificial, hopefully with time this will blend in naturally with his films.
We Not Naughty is not without its many flaws though. The final act was one dragged out affair taking place in the jungles of Malaysia involving a crazed drug lord (Eric Moo) and having the kids transport a large payload of drugs across the Straits of Johor, only for CK The teacher, his wife (Taiwanese Cherry Hsia) and one of their moms getting involved in thwarting their efforts. And the child birth scene was well, done by other filmmakers already, although one can argue it's something that Jack had to insert in order to provide a redemption piece for his main leads when they realize the kind of sacrifices and pain any mom had to go through. It's very clunky and contrived, especially when involving comedic complications and conveniences in the middle of nowhere.
What this film will serve to do is to see if Jack Neo has already recovered from the public backlash of his indiscretion, and how local audiences in general have come to forget a rather public episode and continue to want to be entertained and accept his brand of storytelling and inevitable moral education through his films. I'm willing to bet that the benchmark of 1M at the box office will likely be a given since he can fall back on his hard core, die hard supporters, and anything above it means a return to form and formula.