Can Singapore accept a non-Jack Neo film?

Can Singapore accept a non-Jack Neo film?
Stars of the movie, Unlucky Plaza (from left) Guo Liang, Shane Mardjuki, Judee Tan, Adrian Pang and Epy Quizon.

There is one thing that writer-director Ken Kwek would like people to know about his film Unlucky Plaza: He made his movie for everyone, not just arthouse film fans.

"It has a tone that's not typical of a local commercial movie. And yet it was made as a commercial movie. I designed it as such," he says in an e-mail interview with Life!.

What he means by it being "not typical" of a mainstream made-in-Singapore work is its forays into social commentary and black comedy.

Where it really veers off the beaten path is in its use of English as the main language in the film, which in Singapore is seen as a risky choice. English local films have all but vanished, due mainly to poor box office.

But Kwek is upbeat. He says that he is waiting with "bated breath" to see how well it does after it opens in cinemas here from tomorrow, after which he will see if local audiences will accept a template other than the mass-appeal one set by the country's most commercially successful film-maker, Jack Neo. It has nine prints opening in Singapore.

"To put it starkly, their response will help answer this question: Do Singapore filmgoers really want something other than Jack Neo?"

Kwek, 35, is no stranger to thrillers, having co-written the crime story Kidnapper (2010) with Kelvin Tong. He has also co-penned the drama It's A Great Great World (2011).

However, he is best known for writing and directing Sex.Violence.FamilyValues (2013). It was at first given an M18 rating and cleared for release in 2012, but following complaints to the Media Development Authority, it was banned. It finally opened in 2013 under an R21 rating, after edits.

He now wants to put the unpleasantness of the ratings furore behind him and considers Unlucky Plaza to be his debut feature, as Sex was a compendium of shorts.

The new film takes its title from Lucky Plaza, the Orchard Road building best known for its businesses serving Filipinos and is also the location of the restaurant in the film's plot.

The seeds of the thriller were planted in a news story Kwek read in 2011. He noted the rash of property scams occurring over that period, with foreigners being the most victimised.

"That was an interesting point to explore the tension between locals and foreigners," he says.

From there, he built a story around Filipino immigrant Onassis Hernandez (Epy Quizon) and how a scam triggers events that changes his reputation overnight, from hardworking restaurant owner to a man who becomes a lightning-rod for anti- immigrant hatred.

Other characters are Singaporean archetypes ripped from the headlines: A motivational speaker Terence Chia (Adrian Pang) whose own life is falling apart; pastor Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki), too weak to uphold the principles he espouses; and Michelle Chan (Judee Tan), a good wife and teacher with a double life.

Kwek has come to know first-hand the tensions that exist between locals and foreigners, a theme explored in his film.

To promote special screenings for Filipinos in Singapore, posts were put on the film's Facebook page. These attracted vitriolic comments from people Kwek calls "xenophobic nuts", coming from both the anti-Singaporean and anti-Filipino camps.

"So we just block them and carry on, pay them no attention. For me, personally, I hope to know more Filipinos here better through promoting the film," he says.

The film features the original song Riot City, performed by local band Ugly In The Morning, sung by the band's frontwoman, Pam Oei.

Oei, who is married to Kwek, has a small part in the film as Onassis' landlady. Kwek also scripted and directed the music video of the song, which is available on YouTube.

Another Singaporean undercurrent the movie touches on is the divide between those who speak Mandarin and expect the same of all Chinese, and those who find that expectation presumptuous.

The culture gap is represented by a gangster from China, Baby Bear, played by China-born actor Guo Liang, and Terence (Pang), who is a so-called "kentang", Malay for potato and local slang for Western-oriented, English-speaking Singaporeans.

In one scene, Baby Bear tries to communicate with Terence in Mandarin, but is met with a sheepish reaction.

Kwek says the scene speaks to his own personal history.

"My father is a St Andrew's alumni who doesn't speak much Mandarin but is fluent in Teochew and speaks passable Malay. He would've had some difficulty communicating with Baby Bear as well," he says.

He thinks that his father would be "affronted" if someone thought that he was "less Chinese" than Guo, 46, who is originally from Shanghai. "We get trapped in these stark, social categories. In the end, people are a lot more intricate than that, surely," says Kwek.

As far as categories go for Pang's character, he at first appears to be just another Singapore villain - the smug "one percenter", says Pang, 49.

"But his life is in shambles. He doesn't have the goods to back up what he is saying," the actor says of his character.

Terence the life coach defies categorisation yet again when he shows his tender side during the film's climax, he adds.

For Mardjuki, 35, transcending the caricature of the religious hypocrite involved going to a Sunday service at a tiny church. He at first imagined his pastor character to be a megachurch evangelist.

"Going to the service was an eye-opener. The pastor mingles with everyone," he says. He saw that making a switch from charismatic preacher to soft-spoken pastor would be a better fit for the story.

Tan, who was present at the Toronto Film Festival and the Warsaw Film Festival last year for Unlucky Plaza's screenings, says she likes how overseas audiences laughed in the right places and asked the right questions after screenings, proving that Singapore films do not have to dumb down or exaggerate for export.

"They understood a lot more than we expected - the English we used, the premise of the film. They were in sync with the world of the film. They understood issues such as immigration. Every country has those issues."

This article was first published on April 15, 2015.
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