Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ah Boys to Men: Part 2 (新兵正传 / Xin Bing Zheng Zhuan)

Passing Out

Ah Boys to Men Part 1 became Singapore's biggest local film box office champion, taking the more than a decade long crown held by Money No Enough. The anticipation for the second installment will undoubtedly build interest, and it's anyone's guess if it can turn in better revenues, though one thing's for sure, this follow up film in what would be Singapore's first two-parter, is a marked departure from the usual cookie cutter that Jack Neo uses. Perhaps we may see a change from this film on, since this is proclaimed as his 20th, and 21 usually marked the dawn of maturity.

For starters, the product placements are more subtle. The obvious one was the use of a food court venue in place of the penchant for coffee shop settings, marking the stage for yet another round of eye popping CG visuals, which involved military hardware being used in a hypothetical Red versus Blue teaming, trying to match the highlight of the Singapore war scene in the first installment, or to put in a fantastical number of wild boars which were obvious digital creations. Other sponsored shots didn't linger more than necessary, and were more blink-and-you-miss types, rather than the blatant lingering shots that were obviously inserted for advertising dollars. The other indulgence that was distinct here, was the use of the K.Kopter, with mounted camera lenses providing those awesome aerial shots of the Singapore skyline, which after a while became one scene too many. I know it's a new toy, and it's apt to show off what it can do, but too much of a good thing may backfire.

Thankfully the narrative was a marked improvement from the first part, although I missed the nostalgic segments of army days from the past. Those who had found issue with its rather scattered narrative then, take heart that this one removed all unnecessary supporting acts, and kept things firmly on the main cast of the army recruits, who have by now gained a cult following amongst teenagers, and building an even stronger fan base to tap upon for box office numbers. If you've wondered why a lot more scenes about army life of today didn't make it to the first film, well, it's more than made up for with the second installment, from the quintessential training portions of field camps, grenade throwing exercises and route marches, to male bonding both within the camp and outside, when the boys get up to their shenanigans as a team.

Being a Jack Neo film, his social commentary on topical issues will be omni-present, and here he took his cue on Ah Bengs discovering the power of digital media with their tit-for-tat bickering, together with the jab on Foreign Talent, with a second generation Chinese being part of the boy's Platoon Section B, there for a handful of jokes centered around his nationality, and lack of English skills. But whatever mean-spiritedness got countered immediately with a balancing viewpoint, which is quite typical of Jack Neo in his style to keep things on an even keel. You got to give him credit though, for that rather spot on metaphor about job availability, with a local fight back to perform a less glamourous job.

Picking up where the last film left off, with little recap on the first installment, we follow Ken Chow (Joshua Tan) with his new positive attitude back to Basic Military Training at Tekong, which provides Aloysious (Maxi Lim) a run for his money in the Best Recruit department, but this does not sit well with Lobang (Wang Weiliang) and IP Man (Noah Yap) et al. Opportunities within training provide for ostracizing one group from the other, until you know the larger themes about friendship, brotherhood and camaraderie enter the picture. Being a film about National Service, there's really no room for anti-establishment behaviour, so you'd come to expect how things would turn out in the end, as it goes through key highlights of a recruit's training toward the passing out parade.

Joshua Tan may perhaps win over new admirers for the renewed direction his character Ken Chow takes in this film, instead of the rather whiny behaviour of a boy finding National Service a chore just because he wanted to follow his then girlfriend overseas for further studies. The unfortunate event that took place in the previous film's climax continue here, although it's really bit roles for Richard Low and Irene Ang as his parents. Maxi Lim continues in his do-gooder, trying too hard role as he constantly finds himself marked by others, and in conflict whether to tell on his misbehaving buddies, while Noah Yap got a bigger role here because the ties with the civilian world centers upon his character's shoulders given an ugly breakup with his girlfriend, which forms the centerpiece of the narrative tying in toilet humour and some gungho fisticuffs which could have been done better if the punches connected properly on film.

Jack Neo has revealed a knack of unearthing new stars in his films, such as Tosh Zhang (as Sergeant Ong) in showcasing his wider talent and contribution with another theme song, or tap on the fan base of yet another popular blogger Mr Brown in having him make an appearance as a sadistic assessor. But I'm hedging my bets on Wang Weiliang being fondly remembered once the dust settles, as he effortlessly steals everyone's thunder in any scene that he's in. The iconic Ah Beng role helped of course given the many madcap ideas that sometimes worked, or disastrously don't, with the actor hitting all the right notes with his pitch perfect delivery, with certainty his star will rocket from this film outing. With some luck we may see him in more local productions given his on screen presence and charisma, although hopefully not in any similar role or capacity, lest they be pale and poor cousins of effort already been put into this movie.

Ah Boys to Men Part 2 provided that adequate companion piece to the first film, and put together they make up Recruit Ken Chow's story through his rite of passage and coming of age, relatable since it's set against the anecdotal backdrop of Singapore's National Service, and the kinds of stereotypical caricatures one inevitably will meet with. It's Army Daze for the 21st century, something uniquely Singaporean, and recommended to any film buff who may want to earmark this as one of the earliest local films to feature extensive use of CG that worked.

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