So Where's Your Gang?
It's not everyday that we get two local films going head to head with each other in the same week, with a relatively clear outcome on which would be the winner at the box office given one with better production values, story and cast. Coincidentally, both projects involve television actors who were once household names, and couldn't be more different now in their film careers. Huang Yiliang is very much on his own with his independent productions, with My Ghost Partner being a very painful big screen debut after a series of straight to video titles, and it should have continued heading down that route, while Li Nanxing's Cornerstone Pictures learnt much from its disastrous debut The Ultimate Winner that you just cannot do it alone (Li Nanxing had, like what Huang Yiliang is doing, wore multiple production hats in producing, writing, starring, and perhaps more), with Imperfect sounding very much humbler than its predecessor.
Cornerstone Pictures had capitalized on one of Li's two famous television personas in the past, one being the master gambler which had led to The Ultimate Winner, and the other a gangster, a role which had launched him into the minds of heartlanders and turning him into an instant star. For Imperfect, he goes back into this role as a triad gangster, but the filmmakers now realize that they'd probably be in much better shape handing over the starring reins to teenagers. After all, some of the more successful films in Singapore starred teenagers in leading roles, with intent to tap upon their targeted demographics, and unfortunately for its theme on teenage gangsters, had to suffer similar age restrictions in the halls like how The Days had to as well.
But I digress. Imperfect may be a tale involving triads and such, but it's hardly an overt cautionary tale, with scenes that do dissuade its protagonists from joining gangs, but preferring to show rather than tell outright, which doesn't interrupt the flow of the narrative with jarring, preachy sermons. Comparing this to The Ultimate Winner where you have lessons being thrown at your face, this is an improvement by leaps and bounds. Written by YY, Imperfect centers around the best of friends Jianhao (Edwin Goh), Zach (Ian Fang) and Square (Phua Yida) and their rivalry with peers, getting stepped upon frequently because their arch rival's father happens to be Guodong (Liu Kai Chi), a notorious gangster. So if you can't beat them, you join them, and soon enough both Zach and Jianhao become followers of Li Nanxing's Zhihua, naturally Guodong's rival in the triads, with the former criticized by the latter for his penchant to be a gangster with a conscience for not dealing in drugs.
While we have one narrative arc centered around the gangsters, and those who dare dabble with lucrative vices strengthening their grip on power with money, the main story here deals with Jianhao and his family instead. Released from detention for injuring a fellow teen in a fight, his mom (Chiang Chu-Ping) and sister form the emotional crux of the story, with family always wanting the wayward kid to get back onto the path of studies, and the second chances that come with a proper education, and Jianhao almost always disappointing all with his clandestine episodes, usually trying to save his friends Zach and Square from doing worse. In between he tries to woo Shanshan (Kimberly Chia) in what would be form a contrast in characters, and usual mould of the typical, bookish student in Singapore, in a romance that's rather perfunctory than effective.
The story doesn't venture too far from what's expected in a film like this, complete with melodramatic moments and story development complete with twists in the tale on the identity of Jianhao's father the minute this gets mooted, since the single-parent family doesn't really get the thumbs up in this family-oriented city state. It continued to shine the path of hope and choice provided to Jianhao, and to anyone in similar shoes thinking that opportunities are slammed shut, if only for one having a choice in deciding just which path one wants to lead - the tried and tested, or the triads.
If Imperfect was to be that cautionary tale, it surely didn't come off too obviously, since there was a key scene where the effeminately behaving Brother Nuo (Li Pei Hsu) probably stole the limelight with his character arc dishing out violence, and almost every other few minutes in the first half of the film is a realistically shot fight scene. It went the round about way to show how "brothers" in secret societies these days more often abandon their own than to stand up for them, when it boils down to survival of the fittest and protecting a turf that they don't want any complications. Loyalty belongs to the grandfather's era, with trouble often started using the simplest of excuses.
Imperfect joins the ranks of a handful of films that are technically strong, with excellent work by cinematographer Amandi Wong, who also lensed Truth Be Told many years back, to provide some artistic leanings. If you came out of the film impressed at how this didn't look like a homemade video or television episode, he's probably the guy to thank. Production values are kept high without a feel for the need to scrimp, and director Steve Cheng also had some fairly nice ideas for the finale bust up that, while cliched on one end, gets delivered competently and stylishly, becoming a fitting, gripping climax. It's also a nice touch to see proper and real locales where teens hang out used as backdrops, instantly recognized by the targeted demographics as well to form that appeal, so this would very much go into the archives many years later, especially if such places disappear in the face of rapid urban development.
It's a relatively quiet year for local films in 2012 to date with nothing that truly stood out from the usual tried, tested and tired comedy, horror, or the horror-comedy. While Imperfect had to dig out the teenage gangster formula yet again, it has a good mix of fresh faces and veterans from local and abroad, and by default, as it now stands, is probably the local highlight of the year.