Thursday, April 18, 2013

Judgment Day (世界末日 / Shi Jie Mo Ri)

This is the breath of fresh air injected into the mainstream Singapore film line up in many years, with that constant barrage of not so good horror films, and mediocre comedies finding their way to the big screen, some of which are so badly made you'd wonder what exactly were the merits that found them distribution, doing nothing but damage in perpetuating the supposition that local movies are indeed all bad. Judgment Day shows that a film well made, with a solid story and premise, can indeed be something different, resonating easily with emotions while providing entertainment.

With the screenplay written, and directed by Ong Kuo Sin, Judgment Day follows films like Melancholia, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, in presenting a What If Armageddon scenario in Singapore, where a meteorite finds itself on a collision course for Earth, with that ground zero targeted straight at our sunny little island in 72 hours. This would either mean mass panic and lawlessness, as everyone goes out to do exactly what they want to do, without a care in the world. Or in the Singapore context, we listen to the all forms of authority as led by the Prime Minister (Adrian Pang, with gaffes often heard in the media) and behave civilly, going about our own business without resorting to looting or taking to the streets. And most folks would consider having that final family meal important.

But there's a twist to all these which is best kept under wraps, with a surprise in store right in the final act as well. In between we're subject to vignettes of story arcs focused on different characters, families and aspects in facing up to the impending calamity that will wipe out existence as we know it. These little stories are lightweight without being too heavy, allowing an exploration of themes and scenarios centered around the film's large ensemble characters, albeit with punches pulled to leave you room to ponder and think through should you find yourself in similar shoes.

Couples seem to fall out during this time as they embark to face up to regrets, or deciding to move on from their unhappy state. There's Rebecca Lim and Chua En Lai playing yuppies who can't seem to want to be together, with the former's character heading to Cambodia to find that spark that they had lost, and the latter following suit days later, only to have his anal self experience the simpler life. This arc is the only one that develops outside of the country, with the rest firmly being quintessentially Singaporean. Then there's a the messy relationship woes created by news anchor (Alice Ko) who decides to see through her infatuation with her station manager (Guo Liang), breaking up with her husband (Tender Huang) and forcing him to roam the streets and into the arms of a prostitute (Julie Tan).

The story arcs are treated with different weight, with some being quite small, such as the late John Cheng's turn as a bogus medium whose followers naturally seek for assurances that the afterlife is actually quite alright, Mark Lee and Wang Yu Qing playing cops with the latter's confession causing a rift in their professional relationship, with the former (also executive producer) engaged in an intertwined case involving a Mini-Cooper and an ex-convict's benefactor, while others take on the dynamics within the family, such as Henry Thia's coming out of the closet as a transsexual and pursuing a sex change operation, leaving wife (Alice Lim) and son (Edwin Goh) perplexed and confused. And others in the supporting cast, such as Sebastian Tan, Richard Low, and Mark Chin et al, play characters that lend a little light heartedness to the heavier moments in the movie.

Judgment Day says a lot on the Singapore psyche with scenes that contain veiled though sharp criticisms, and is introspective of today's society. It also doesn't mince its set up, with a slew of foreigners in our midst too. The narrative deals with our fears and aspirations, plus those insecurities that plague most of us living on this little island. It touches upon themes like religion in an entertaining fashion, with subtle comedy that had me in stitches nonetheless - the Lau & Lau episode was hilarious, despite it being a commentary on employment discrimination woes.

What made the film work is the very good work in casting, and the actor's delivery of their characters, which were outside of their comfort zone. Never will you have seen Henry Thia take on such a serious role and never betraying his comedic background, or Mark Lee as well, giving them opportunity to perform and shine in dramatic roles, rather than their usual madcap, slapstick personas. And similarly, the late John Cheng also plays it down a notch, but was a giant in his role as the scheming though confused medium, in what would be a really fitting and memorable send off role in his film career spanning multiple films where he's usually the uncouth ruffian / gangster / loanshark. And despite having dialogues mostly in Mandarin, Rebecca Lim and En Lai's roles in speaking predominantly in English, didn't sound artificial, but very at home, which is music to the ears, since local English dialogue have so far been cringeworthy when up on the big screen.

And it's not just the performances that were excellent, but the technical and production aspects that were competent and top quality as well, from sound design (listen up for those intricately crafted background noises), to awesome cinematography with art house sensibilities, a soundtrack that hits all the right notes throughout the film, and good special effects to boot, making this film the complete package in story-telling. If there's a gripe about the film, is that it should have been a little more courageous in its characterization, since there is a distinct lack of non-Chinese representation in a movie set in Singapore, where our multi-cultural heritage and make up, is sorely missed to be archetypal of our society.

Still, Judgment Day more than makes up for the void that is the need for variety in Singapore's film landscape, and I dare say it's one of the best Singapore films this year, setting the standard and raising the bar for others in the horizon to follow suit. Not since Singapore Dreaming have I been so moved by a local film, and Judgment Day was well worth the wait, coming out from almost nowhere, to take over the mantle. A definite recommend with potential to be shortlisted as amongst the best this year, and if you see only one Singapore film a year, Judgment Day would be it!

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