Sunday, December 30, 2012

Taxi! Taxi! (德士当家 / De Shi Dang Jia)

Ah Boy, Don't Steal My Rice Bowl Leh!

The Internet plays a big role in Kelvin Sng's feature directorial debut, since it is the blogging platform that Dr Cai Mingjie initially took to write his daily experiences as a taxi driver in the form of a blog, having been laid off from his A-Star researcher job and failed in multiple job applications. Described as probably the most educated taxi driver in Singapore then, Taxi! Taxi! is loosely based on his published book, and having watched this, the film only adapts the premise of his professional career, and included some very slight anecdotes, before spinning something on its own, closer toward television melodrama.

We all have our own favourite taxi-driver stories and experiences, from memorable conversations with talkative drivers, to those who drive like Formula 1 racers. What Taxi! Taxi! did clearly to avoid, is to top those individual moments, and stories you'd hear from friends and family, attempting instead to weave some social commentary into the narrative, given that it's a local formula that works at the box office. But unfortunately for its bevy of writers, it stayed very politically correct, with deference to OB markers, that it suffered from the cut-and-thrust of engagement through film, and even its comedy stayed relatively safe. I guess it had the PG rating in mind, and somehow had its wings clipped.

Things like retrenchment and losing of jobs to foreigners, are hot topic subjects that could have benefited more than from its caricatures (speaking in accented English), with Caucasians singing praises about governance here, and the locals, epitomized by Gurmit Singh's Professor Chua, inspired from Dr. Cai's story, getting the short end of the stick for being sandwiched in between reality, and expectations from friends, family, and loved ones. Educational policies also came to the forefront thanks to the rather uncouth Ah Tau (Mark Lee) and son Jia Jia (Chua Jin Sen aka Dr Jia Jia) with their struggles to get the latter brushed up on his English language skills, together with Prof Chua's unique encouragement to have his own kid (Royston Ong) improve his scores in order to score (pardon the pun) a visit to his research lab.

The narrative was effective, yet predictable, as you'd know where the characters were headed for, and how things would develop. Despite its title, its taxi-ing moments were limited to Prof Chua learning the ropes from the experienced Ah Tau, complete with their initial differences and Ah Tau's run of bad luck, coupled with a few funny scenes especially between passengers and drivers. What this story chose to explore was instead two father-son relationships, where both Chua and Tau find it necessary for various reasons to tell white lies to their loved ones, the former because he's embarrassed, the latter to hide the truth of his wife's elopement from his young son. Between the two families, despite the extended relationships with Chua and wife (Jazreel Low) and mother-in-law (Lai Ming, too typecast for local screens already), this side of the story turned out to be quite the bore and rote, compared to the charm and chemistry between Ah Tau and Jia Jia, the former who is also going after his tenant Regina (Gan Mei Yan) to be his potential new wife.

Between the two comedians in Gurmit Singh and Mark Lee, who are sharing the same big screen after One Leg Kicking in 2001, Mark Lee was the more comfortable one in front of the camera, being the more seasoned feature film actor, playing for the umpteenth time the role of a good natured Ah Beng. It could probably be an interesting prospect had the comedians switched roles to play against type. But even these two veterans got upstaged by Dr Jiajia, the internet star, in his very natural and earnest Singlish rattle, coupled with his "Kee Chiew" catchphrase which will gain traction, and earn the little boy a lot more fans. He is an expected draw toward the film, and his role, specifically written for him, does not disappoint. I guess with a little honing and polishing, he could ace more roles, and probably join the ranks of the rare child actor in Singapore.

Product placement isn't as intrusive or blatant as other local films, given that taxi cabs and petrol kiosks are hotbeds for sponsors anyway. In-vehicle conversations are a thing of a norm in most films, but I suppose a smaller budget here made the filmmakers resort to CG-ed taxi rides, compared to having rig a cab with cameras and shooting as it went around, with actors conversing, driving and not missing their comedic cue and timing a bit of a tall order. It could have really hammed this portion up a bit more, keeping with its kitsch looking poster, rather than leaving these portions sorely exposed.

I still recall Kelvin Sng's short film Kichiro which had its climax set at a rooftop, and it's pretty much the same case here with rooftops bookending his debut feature. After having cut his teeth through a number of short and mid-length films such as The Gang and Fairytales, it's heartening to see confidence from studios in backing another local director making his leap into the feature. Sng's not resting on his laurels just yet, with another film primed for 2013, but for now, Taxi! Taxi! is that audience friendly mainstream movie that makes for a safe, entertaining calling card nonetheless.

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