Mee Pok Man pushed boundaries

Rewatching Mee Pok Man last week, its flaws jumped out - it has terrible acting, worse dialogue, a far-fetched premise and tries to make a man who is kidnapper, rapist and corpse-keeper a sympathetic character.

But you can't say it's not audacious and it boggles the mind to think that it was allowed to be screened here in 1995, even with an R(A) rating, the most stringent possible at that time.

It's safe to say that since 1995, no Singapore film-maker has tried to make anything as boundary- pushing as Eric Khoo's debut feature, not even Khoo himself.

Joe Ng, playing the intellectually disabled hawker who brings home comatose prostitute Bunny (Michelle Goh), is an insult to acting, a crime made worse by the casting of professional and very capable actor Lim Kay Tong as the pimp Mike, the villain of the piece.

Ng's notion of acting "semiretarded" (in the now-insensitive language of Straits Times reviewer Sandi Tan, writing in 1995) is to look downcast, shuffle and stutter - in other words, to behave in a socially awkward manner. His Mandarin - with its middle-class, English-educated accent - if uttered on screen today, would elicit titters, which was what the actors in last year's erotic-horror work Lang Tong received.

Mee Pok Man is about as Singaporean as you can get - even its flaws are Singaporean. There is Ng's "kentang" accent (someone who eats potatoes, not rice). There is also how all the prostitutes in the film, including Bunny, are ugly caricatures of the Ah Lian or Ah Huay, stereotypes as imagined by our Westernised middle class. The film shows an early version of a female archetype that lives on in Channel 5 comedies.

Today, we know too much about sex trafficking and how it targets foreign-born women to make a film like this. We are now also too aware of the crime of sex slavery to see Bunny's predicament as anything but touching or romantic.

The romanticisation of the underclass - poverty porn - was not just a problem in film; it was rife in Singapore books and other art forms back in the 1990s, when artists were more innocent or, as some would say, naive.

The list of problems could go on and on and several were noted by Ms Tan, even back then.

In spite of it all, this work, shot in 16 days for less than $100,000, sent a message. It told artists that there is such a thing as a Singapore-made film. The exploitation horror movie Medium Rare came out in 1991, but it featured creative input from outside Singapore, as did the touristy melodrama Bugis Street, which was released at around the same time as Khoo's film.

Mee Pok Man earned $450,000 at the box office in 1995, a sum that local arthouse productions - and many commercial works - struggle to achieve 20 years later.

The film has its problems, but it cannot be denied that it is truly Singaporean, reflecting the state of popular culture in the mid-1990s.

Watching Mee Pok Man today, we see its problems. But in its daring, we see the future.

This article was first published on Nov 25, 2015.
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