Risky sex in movies

Just when it seemed as if every made-inSingapore movie was going to be cookie-cutter wholesome, a few film-makers have dared to step forward to spice up the scene.

As Sam Loh, 48, director of sexy thriller Lang Tong, puts it: "Audiences are bored of horror comedies, heartland comedies, HDB issues.

"What you see on television and in films - they are all the same," he says.

Opening in cinemas tomorrow is Rubbers, a Mandarin R21-rated sex comedy showing a man pleasuring himself to a porn video. In the English language M18-rated thriller Unlucky Plaza, now showing in cinemas, a woman offers oral gratification to a man in a car.

And in the Mandarin R21-rated horror-thriller work Lang Tong, which was released last month, there was female nudity aplenty.

Later this year, eminent film-maker Eric Khoo will release In The Room, which has been described as a "high-concept erotic movie".

Four movies might not sound like much, but in Singapore, this marks a major change on a movie menu dominated by youth- and family-friendly entertainment.

Till now, local features aimed at cinema release have tried to avoid ratings of NC16 or higher to maximise audience size. There is also a stigma attached to explicit films, where M18- and R21- rated pictures from South Korea and elsewhere have become associated with seediness and an audience composed mainly of older men who attend screenings alone.

At first glance, the four local movies seem to be a mixed bunch in content and financing.

What they do have in common is that none received financial assistance from the Government. Rubbers and Unlucky Plaza are largely privately funded. Singapore film-maker Han Yew Kwang, who is behind Rubbers, was also helped by an Internet crowdfunding campaign.

On the other hand, Lang Tong was co-produced by large Singapore player mm2 Entertainment (That Girl In Pinafore, 2013).

Khoo's In The Room will be made with financing from respected Hong Kong house Distribution Workshop.

The other trait the four films share is a desire by the directors to escape the run-of-the-mill.

Han, 38, thinks that veterans like him are reaching an age where they feel confident and experienced enough to take creative risks. For him, it meant making a film that poked fun at Singaporean attitudes towards sex.

For Loh, it was to do his own take on his favourite Hong Kong and Japanese horror-thrillers.

Han and Loh agree that these days, the label "local picture" is no longer as unique or interesting as it once was. Something extra has to grab the attention of the jaded filmgoer.

Han says: "This is the best time to make a different kind of film."

Add a dash of marketing hype and the result is a titillating movie poster.

The distributors of Lang Tong gave the film the tagline "Singapore's most controversial film", while Rubbers is billed as "Singapore's first sex comedy".

Unlucky Plaza's claim is "Sh** hits the fan in the world's safest city". Distribution Workshop's chief executive Jeffrey Chan, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last year, promised that In The Room will be "controversial".

Whether controversy works is another matter. Lang Tong's three-week run in theatres, starting in March, earned $80,000, below the $300,000 or so needed for a local movie to be considered a modest success and far below the millions chalked up by one of Jack Neo's Ah Boys To Men action dramas.

Perhaps there is some truth to the belief that stricter classifications dampen ticket sales. After all, according to guidelines from the Media Development Authority, film advertisements cannot "depict any person in a sexually provocative manner" or "any lewd, obscene or offensive act, word or message".

Furthermore, posters for films rated R21 can be displayed only in the lobbies of cinemas cleared to screen such films.

These restrictions and the stigma attached to films with sexual themes seem to have stung Lang Tong. The king of Singapore movies, film-maker Neo, was not spared either when the sex farce he wrote, directed and acted in, That One No Enough (1999), made a paltry (by his standards) $1 million at the box office, despite being cleared with a PG.

This seems to bolster the belief that Singaporeans shy away from movies too awkward to watch with friends or family, or are simply not interested.

Khoo, 50, believes that audiences now are far more sophisticated than before and it takes much more than prurience to reel them in.

"With the Internet, they are exposed to a lot," he says.

But box-office figures show that for some films at least, sex sells.

Fifty Shades Of Grey, the movie based on the bestselling erotic novel, has just become the highest- earning R21 film in Singapore.

As of Sunday, the film, still showing in cinemas, has earned $2.42 million. This beats the returns of other R21 pictures featuring prolonged sex and nudity, such as Lust, Caution (2007, $1.6 million) and Gone Girl (2014, $1.78 million).

Fifty Shades' record stands against films from the 1990s that bore the then harshest classification of R(A) - for Restricted Artistic.

That success is not limited to Hollywood works. Khoo's first feature, Mee Pok Man (1995), was classified R(A), but the micro-budgeted horror work earned a solid $450,000 in theatres, more than enough to launch the career of one of Singapore's most celebrated film-makers.

It was classified R(A) not for nudity but for its theme of prostitution and use of coarse language. The success of Fifty Shades - passed uncut here - and Mee Pok Man show that Singaporeans will watch a provocative film if one gives them some reason to go besides luridness.

Ken Kwek, 35, writer-director of Unlucky Plaza, says that for him, story and character drive the scenes in Unlucky Plaza, in which characters have furtive, fumbling sex. "So far, sex in my films tends to be acts of emotional distress rather than erotic love," he says.


More saucy and less sentimental, please

The story: This set of three unconnected stories from Singapore film-maker Han Yew Kwang starts with the tale of selfish lover Adam (Alaric Tay), a man whose lubricious dream about porn star Momoko (Oon Shu An) turns into a nightmare.

Next, career-driven Baoling (Yeo Yann Yann), dateless on Valentine's Day, is chastised by a durian-flavoured condom come to life. Finally, middle-aged couple Ah Hua (Catherine Sng) and Ah Niu (Marcus Chin) find themselves deadlocked over his infidelity.

Despite the film's racy tagline, "Singapore's first sex comedy", there is a lot more here about feelings than there is about fornication.

The first story, Nightmare, has Tay playing porn-addicted, misogynistic Adam, who finds himself twinned with porn star Momoko (Oon) in a way that recalls a 2009 horror, The Human Centipede.

What starts out as slapstick quickly becomes Cronenberg-style body horror in a work intended to be a satirical commentary on porn consumption and sexual selfishness. While the wildly varying tonal shades get a little out of control, this work is the strongest of the three for its lack of emotional sugar-coating.

Plumber, the second story, has much of Nightmare's surrealism - reality and fantasy fade in and out from one moment to the next. Han's hops are probably intentional but, as in the previous story, the casual attitude to what is real or imagined robs the story of emotional weight.

In this tale about biological clocks and urban loneliness, Durian (Lee Chau Min) is a durian-flavoured condom come to life as a fairy godmother to warn Baoling (Yeo) that she is doomed to be alone unless she seduces hunky plumber Thor (Julian Hee).

Baoling is the lusty huntress, Thor is the oblivious prey - the joke lies in role reversals, a device that the director has used in past films and works hard here. He pulls his punches, though, and the story ends on a climax of the romantic sort, rather than the other kind.

Han's readiness to shed his libidinous premises and move into safer, more sentimental and moralising territory is felt most strongly in the third story, Balloons, about a sexually estranged middle-aged couple (played by Chin and Sng) re-connecting through a shared childhood memory.

As they overcome their differences and move to a happy ending - in all senses of the phrase - one wishes Han had lingered on the sauciness, not the sentimentality.

As hunky as he needs to be

For almost anyone seeing actor Julian Hee (right) in the Singapore film Rubbers, he is still one pretty hunky guy.

Not his friends, though.

When they saw the trailer for the sex comedy, the telephone calls started reaching him - they all wanted to know: "You haven't been working out, ah?"

After all, this is 2002's Mr Manhunt Singapore winner we are talking about.

Fans of the boyish-looking actor need not worry that he has gone to seed. As Rubbers' writer-director Han Yew Kwang says: "Whenever I need a hunk who can act, I think of Julian."

And yet - wait for it - Hee, 36, admits he had not been pumping iron for more than a year when filming for the movie started. He explains: "I think that makes it more real. Would a plumber have that much time to hit the gym?"

In the film, which opens tomorrow, he plays a beefy plumber trying to fend off the advances of Yeo Yann Yann's condom reviewer character. The two stars have a scene where they get wet and bothered in a shower stall.

Yeo, 38, who won a Golden Horse for the film, Ilo Ilo (2013), says: "The scene was pretty hard to film because the space was very narrow. And because we were drenched, there was no place to hide a mic."

The next day, the actress, who had just given birth then, fell ill. Despite eventually losing her voice, she ploughed on.

Hee was all praise for the trouper: "She was very professional and I learnt a lot from her."

Having worked with Han in the telemovie romance drama Love In A Cab (2010), Hee trusts and respects the film-maker. "He made me fall in love with acting. So when he told me he had this movie coming up, I didn't even know anything about the script and I said, 'Please sign me up.'"

When he found out it was a sex comedy, he had one regret, though. He quips: "I was a teeny weeny bit disappointed that I wouldn't have sex scenes like Alaric (Tay) and (Oon) Shu An. They got the fun parts."

Hee left MediaCorp as a full-time artist in 2008 and continued as a freelance actor, appearing in drama serials such as Channel 5's Red Thread (2009) and Channel 8's Game Plan (2012).

He says of his decision: "As an actor in MediaCorp, you're very protected. Everything is done for you, you just have to go there and say your lines. It's very easy to get comfortable in that kind of environment, but I don't want to. I want to try different things because I'm still young."

And so he has gone into the eatery business, working behind the scenes on the paperwork at two Korean outlets - Guksu Homemade Noodle House and Kimchi Korean Restaurant - run by his younger brother, Haden. Hee professes to love food and is toying with the idea of dishing out traditional French cuisine next.

Acting is not completely out of the picture. He says: "If a good script comes along, I'd still beg for it." It would also depend on whether he can fit the filming into his present schedule.

Hee reaches for a food analogy: "Acting is like eating ice cream. If you eat it all the time, you'll tire of it. And I want to keep that feeling of loving it."

Her homework: To watch porn

American porn, European porn, Japanese porn - actress Oon Shu An (right) has watched them all.

She can even point out the differences between them.

"American porn is really out there, the moment it starts you know what's going to happen. European porn is a bit more realistic. The Japanese kind builds on this idea of a proper and sweet girl and you really don't expect them to become like beasts."

It was all in the name of research - she plays a Japanese adult video star in the sex comedy Rubbers, which opens tomorrow. Her character, Momoko, gets stuck in a compromising situation with Alaric Tay's condom-hating playboy.

"I didn't want to make her a caricature. I want her to be someone real," says Oon, 28, adding with a laugh that some of that research time was spent with her photographer boyfriend.

By addressing sex head-on, Rubbers helps to make it less scary, the actress says. "There are a lot of us who are very fearful of sex, but it happens to all of us at some point and it's a beautiful part of life."

Her open-minded boyfriend was supportive of the project and said: "It's funny, just do it."

Still, Oon initially had her doubts about taking the role. While she had a big break on television when she was cast as a concubine in the Netflix historical epic Marco Polo (2014), which contained sex scenes and nudity, she kept her clothes on.

She wondered how her family and some of her younger fans who watch her online beauty product show, Tried And Tested, would react to Rubbers.

When she told her parents about the role, her mother sighed and asked: "Why must you do this kind of role?"

Now that the movie is out, she is torn about her parents watching it.

On the one hand, the stories are all "beautiful and sweet in their own way". On the other hand, the movie might make them uncomfortable, given that her face is buried in Tay's crotch for much of their segment.

Writer-director Han Yew Kwang had a strap-on specially made and Oon had to latch onto it for a few minutes at a stretch. It might not sound very long, but she points out that it was very tiring and that it made her drool.

"But the crew are always on hand with tissue paper and then the device has to be wiped clean when you take it out. If not, it's wet and you have to latch on again, it's very gross."

Not many actresses would have been as gung-ho as Oon, a Lasalle College of the Arts graduate whose one-woman show, #UnicornMoment, was nominated for Best Original Script at this year's Life! Theatre Awards.

For her, it is a matter of trust as she previously worked with Han and Tay on the telemovie romance drama Love In A Cab (2010). She was confident that Rubbers would not be a smutty romp.

Indeed, the smuttiest part of the whole project was when she was doing research.

"Yes, exactly that," she exclaims.

This article was first published on April 29, 2015.
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