"Choices have their consequences," intones a character in Ms J Contemplates Her Choice (NC16, 88 minutes, 2½** ). The artistic decisions made during this film's production show that this principle is more easily said than practised.
Actress-singer Kit Chan makes her movie lead debut as Jo, a radio deejay who shares the morning Hot Talk call-in show with co-host Ken (Bobby Tonelli). The pair gives advice; she is the nice one to Ken's acerbic jokester. The single mother of two children has her equanimity shattered when a male caller tells her he will kill one of two socially reviled persons - her job is to choose which one dies.
The plot summary only hints at what writer-director Jason Lai packs into this English-Mandarin suspense drama with arthouse aspirations, which premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival last year.
The film's first act features a woman alone, looking pensive, children at play and wide shots of HDB blocks - the stuff typical of Singapore art films. These lull the viewer into thinking this is a low-key profile of a woman of a certain age, right before it takes a hard left into Twilight Zone territory.
What follows is sometimes illuminating, but more often frustrating. Having flashed this major story development, Lai opts to address it in an oblique or perhaps reluctant manner - his attitude is hard to tell.
What is clear, however, is the enthusiasm to editorialise on a range of current affairs topics, from the disparagement of Eastern values and language by Westernoriented youth, to whether Singapore was an economic backwater before independence, to the textbook burning by Singaporeans celebrating the end of exams.
Neither heat nor light is generated by these opinion-column scenes, despite their tenuous connection to key characters. Jo's mother, played by veteran Xiang Yun, is a Chinese-language teacher who frets about the lowered status of Mandarin in society and within her own family. But her battles feel petty when placed next to the loaded gun that is the whodunit narrative.
In much of the second act, in fact, the murder story takes a distant second place to the social commentary, with the action too often cutting to a television panel that hectors and pontificates issues without insight. Is this low-key satire on government-controlled media?
It is hard to say, when the story elsewhere has no qualms with taking a blunt approach. Radio station executives (Amy Cheng and Wiggie Lim) debate the money-versus-ethics question of putting a potential murderer on air, their back-and-forths adding to the cacophony generated by secondary characters given puzzling prominence.
Things snap into blurry focus in the third act when, in a well-crafted and unexpected turn, a separate story thread is tied back to the main one. Then, attention returns to the whodunnit. The relief at its return lasts only so long as when it sinks in that the twist is at best, bathetic, and, at worst, histrionic.
Lai's feature debut shows promise in its interesting portrayal of a woman protagonist who bucks stereotypes after she is flung into a crisis. He does better with the adult actors than he does with child players - the lack of naturalism in the younger set is jarring.
There is nothing wrong in challenging an audience with ambiguity or a discursive story - the art lies in making it all feel of one piece. Current affairs of a different sort figure in big, boisterous Hong Kong blockbuster SPL2: A Time For Consequences (NC16, 120 minutes, 3***), an over-the-top cop drama that crosses the boundaries of nationality, language and often believability.
Naturalism has no place in a movie in which a heroin addict quits and transforms into a supercop overnight, or which has a syndicate that snatches people off the streets of Hong Kong to harvest organs.
"Two hundred and sixty people disappear in Hong Kong every year," declares a narrator at the start of the movie, trying to support the urban myth that innocent bystanders are snatched for their body parts.
That sci-fi supermarket-for- spleens plot is driven by an ensemble cast. Chan Chi-kit (China actor and wushu champ Wu Jing) is an undercover cop so dedicated to infiltrating gangs that he becomes a drug addict. When his cover is blown, he finds himself in a Thai prison.
The only person to exhibit sympathy is prison guard Chai (Thai action star Tony Jaa), whose own terminally ill daughter needs an organ transplant. He fails to see that the prison is also a cage for human livestock, run by the spiffily dressed and enigmatic Ko Chun (Zhang Jin who, like Wu Jing, is a wushu master-turned-actor).
Meanwhile, Chan's detective uncle Chan Kwok-wah (Simon Yam) tries to find his missing nephew by following the trail of crime lord Hung (Louis Koo).
SPL2 bears all the hallmarks of a checkbox-ticking multi-territory formula flick of the type that tends to flop at the box office (see John Woo's The Crossing, 2014).
Despite its overladen, quotasatisfying cast list and moralising for the sake of China's censors, it seems to have bucked the trend by zooming up the charts in China to take the No. 2 spot behind Jurassic World when it opened two weeks ago.
Hong Kong director Soi Cheang (The Monkey King, 2014) gives the audience plenty to look at in this violent ode to male bonding and family values, propelled by the star power of pretty-boy China heart-throbs and veteran Hong Kong stars, all set in the exotic "foreign" locale of Thailand and the given oomph by the presence of international hero Jaa.
Inspired by, but not related to, the story started in SPL: Kill Zone (2005), it features three marvellously choreographed setpiece battles - in a Thai prison, at a Hong Kong harbour terminal and in a high-tech Bangkok tower - and what feels like a dozen smaller beatdowns provide plenty of spectacle, covering up that howler of a premise and a climax so sappy, it will give makers of daytime soaps the heaves.
SPL2's mayhem is about as far as you can get from the frock- and-flock drama (or sheep and weep story, if you prefer) Far From The Madding Crowd (PG, 119 minutes, 4****).
The latest in a line of films crafted from Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel keeps the story intact. Headstrong Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a gentlewoman of modest means, is wooed by three men who all come with a "but" - the capable but lowly sheepherder Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the wealthy but stiff landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and the handsome but caddish soldier Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge).
She makes her choice and, as the characters of the film Ms J would say, there are consequences.
Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, 2012), working with a dialogue-light script from David Nicholls (Great Expectations, 2012, and the novel and screenplay for One Day, 2011), extracts visual poetry from the Dorset countryside, with each panorama prettier than the last. Except for one memorable scene in a forest between Everdene and Troy, Vinterberg steers clear of the current trend of making implied sexuality explicit.
That would be unnecessary - there is plenty of desire on display here, conveyed in the tremble of the lip or in the intensity of the gaze, or in the deeply saturated colours of a hayfield.
Emotions are bottled up as tightly as the Victorian corsets as each man promises, in exchange for Bathsheba's hand in marriage, a life of comfort, sheep or a piano, not necessarily in that order.
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This article was first published on July 1, 2015.
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