Friday, August 18, 2006

Saint Jack

Saint Jack Poster

Today marked a special day, that it's the first time the banned 1979 movie Saint Jack, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Ben Gazzara, finally makes an official public screening after the ban was lifted earlier this year. It's the second time that it's screened though, given the first time was a special one off screening at the 10th Singapore International Film Festival. Moderated by Ben Slater, we also had a few of the local cast and crew grace the occasion, and even watched the original theatrical trailer in 35mm, with director Peter Bogdanovich introducing key scenes and taking that famed walk through "Boogie Street".

Based on the book written by Paul Theroux, Saint Jack remains the only Hollywood movie to be shot entirely on location in Singapore, not in any studio backlots here, but actually out there on the streets. Much has been said about the banning of the movie because either the authorities didn't enjoy being hoodwinked on the production, or it's really because the focus on the seedier side of life during those times was found inappropriate in the late 70s period of purge. Whatever the case is, it's finally unbanned, and you might wonder, after viewing it, what the fuss had been all about.

Sure there were boobs, there were transsexuals, there are Chinese gangsters, prostitutes and other undesirable elements, and then there's Jack Flowers (Ben Gazzara), the ang moh pimp who works the grounds as easy as can be, a smooth operator who can get you what you want, how you want, and harbours ambitious thoughts of operating his own House against good advice.

It's a story of one man's survival in a city that's evolving, of the challenges he faces having to stick out in shady environments like a sore thumb, of tussling with the triads for turf, and having the CIA on his back as well. It's about the usual friendship, love, loyalties

Watching a movie in retrospect allowed me to marvel at the 70s Singapore that I was born in, an era where things were not so polished and efficient, where gangsters roamed the streets, where Boogie (Bugis) Street was not yet known for its air conditioned sterile shopping malls, where the airport was still at Paya Lebar, where the all too familiar city skyline is not yet defined, where taxi cabs still have a metallic hood spanning the length of the windscreen, where the Fullerton Hotel was once the General Post Office, where dilapitated godowns still lined the banks of Boat Quay, where bumboats the nostalgic list goes on.

One thing's for sure, while the storyline might sound sleazy with its semi-focus on the world's oldest profession, the production values certainly weren't. Everything's utterly top notch for a production of that era, and I'd dare say even comparable to standards of today. It's Hollywood after all, and no effort was scrimped in bringing the novel to life. It's everything admirable from art direction, to sets, to cinematography, editing, sound, the whole works. And Gazzara was too owned Jack Flowers - he made it so believable that this ang moh can integrate himself into society of the times, with his back-slapping, first-name calling amongst the locals.

If you do watch Saint Jack, I'd recommend reading Ben Slater's book on the making of the movie - Kinda Hot prior to viewing it. While there might be spoilers as certain scenes and plot lines are discussed, it makes for a more compelling film viewing as you inadvertently would feel that you've gone through the entire production process from start to end, and then identify with elements on screen. You'll marvel at how what was discussed on paper turned up on screen, and silently smile at others when you know the background of how that particular scene or shot came about. Even if you don't have plans to watch the movie, the book is well researched into the challenges of filmmaking, and shares some key observations about a society that has been long gone and lost in time.

Oh yes, did I mention that I was seated next to Mr Teo Bee Hui who played Jimmy Khoo during the screening? Awesome!

Anyway here are some badly taken pics - I need to do something about my camera's (in)ability under low lighting conditions...

LtoR: Tan Yan Meng (Little Hing), Teo Bee Hui (Jimmy Khoo), Noel Joseph (Gopi) and Ben Slater

The Q&A was relatively short though, as there were few questions fielded from the floor. The cast and crew present went through brief introductions, like Yan Meng still being in television productions, and Noel recalled being plucked out from his job to star in the film. Some excerpts:

LtoR: Tony Yeow (Unit Manager), Agnes Chia (Casting), Tan Yan Meng (Little Hing), Teo Bee Hui (Jimmy Khoo), and Noel Joseph (Gopi)

Cleopatra Wong herself was also present during the screening, and asked how Tony felt about having being involved in two movies that were banned - the other was his production called Ring of Fury. Tony shared that he should have been more aware of the censorship requirements during the period of the late 70s, where "yellow culture" was being frowned upon.

Agnes and Tony also disclosed that Peter Bogdanovich had a peculiar way of casting - he sees what he likes, and then you're in, something like a selection based on face value, literally. Also, Agnes recalled that working with Bogdanovich was quite difficult, like the last minute decision to want to cast a midget - she had to look for one who wanted to act in the film in less than a day.

Anyway you can click onto Ben Slater's blog post on his thoughts, and he has a better picture posted :-)

Saint Jack plays at The Arts House for one more time on Sunday 27th Aug 06. Grab your tickets today, if you haven't (Oops, heard it's already sold out!). Watching it on the big screen definitely beats viewing it a TV screen anytime, and what more with inside info courtesy of the well researched Ben Slater book Kinda Hot, and having the actual cast in attendance as well.

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