Sunday, November 09, 2008

Pulau Hantu

We Got Mobilized

While this might have been marketed as a horror film, the end result is nothing but, given its distinct lack of scares. I suppose local horror movies with military flavour (such as 1942) tend to be focusing on the military aspects of the story and even on the relationships between soldiers of a platoon, rather than on the supernatural elements. Pulau Hantu did try to stick to some formula with attempts at cheap scary shots, which because of the amateurish technique, failed to raise goosebumps or elicit worthwhile screams. Maybe that's why this also didn't opt for a commercial distribution?

Besides Army Daze, I think this is the only other local feature film that doesn't seem to quite put the Singapore Armed Forces in good light. With the former, it's understood that the characters were designed for comedic effect, and the setting being the first three months of conscription, does provide for some natural opportunities for humour. With the platoon in Pulau Hantu, these are reservists who form the backbone, but alas they seem to be more like complaining schoolboys (minus the girl of course, who's a career soldier here), which to a certain degree, does seem to be quite a close fit to real life.

And putting the horror element aside, it dwells a bit on the dynamics within the platoon however, with a white horse LTA Heng (Carl Ng) leading the team, much against his own wishes for coming back to serve out his obligation to the country, and is assisted by a female MSG June Fong (Pamelyn Chee). Rounding up their group are a number of CPLs Alvin (Shane Mardjuki), Rajah (Vijay Madhavan), Hadi (Sani Hussein) who seemed the only one aware of the deep trouble they're going into, and the Hokkien soldier PTE (yeah) Frankie Low, played by John Cheng, providing plenty of comic relief in the first 20 minutes of the show. As mentioned, the "white horse" element got quite a bit of attention and comparison here, as do other little gripes about wearing green.

The film opens in quite standard terms with establishing the source of the supernatural, with a village bomoh (witch doctor) raping a woman he fancies, and the product of that event was a child. Soon both mother and child get buried alive, and sets up the background for the spirits that haunt the island. We then see Adrian Pang cameo as MAJ Damian Lee at the Detention Barracks, interrogating an unseen somebody to recount the events that are about to unfold, for investigations, and thus sets up a little bit of mystery just who this person might just be. So it's a story about a platoon being recalled to serve their reservist by looking for 3 AWOL soldiers on the island of Pulau Hantu, before realizing that their enemy might be of the unseen variety.

The premise had plenty of potential to make this one mean horror flick, with its veins reminiscent of Singapore's cinematic heydays with the likes of horror films such as Pontianak. Witch doctors, victimized damsels, and nicely set up twists to surprise the audience, but alas, its execution came through as a little bit clumsy, and unfortunately, seemed caught up at wanting to play at soldiers rather than to serve up something that could even be remotely spooky. Granted that this is PG rated and funded by MDA so there might be certain territory that the film can't venture too much into, but this could serve as a stifling point in reining back something that could have gone to greater heights.

For instance, this much be one of the most polite bunch of soldiers I've come across in a while, and does Singapore proud by speaking good English even at the face of adversity. And while tactical route march is the order of the day, certainly we can cut down on the number of instances where soldiers walking around in high port pattern, since, well, nothing exactly happens. Lighting is also an issue, though I understand that it could be digitally enhanced to spruce up the darkened skies and the likes, but this in effect negated a number of scary moments where the audience frankly couldn't see a thing, when it should have mattered and raised some goose bumps. Also, certain scenes came across quite jarringly due to poor editing (the sudden immolation scene anyone?), though credit is to be given for working around a tight budget, such as the creative thought into dealing with grenades that cannot be exploded.

It tried to be a Guard Post, but of course minus the blood and gore (it's not a slasher flick), but could have incorporated many basic techniques to serve us some serious scares that audiences would still be left shaken even when the lights come on. We have no lack of ghost stories, as mentioned sarcastically in the movie, that is set in the army, such as a stuck in development-hell production called Charlie Company, but what needs to be really improved, is the way those stories get told and transferred to celluloid. For once I say let rip those cheap scare tactics to see how far one can go in getting audiences spooked.

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