We've never seen a Singapore film like this

News articles about people falling prey to rental scams inspired the screenplay for the black comedy-thriller Unlucky Plaza, film-maker Ken Kwek's first full-length feature.

"There was a spate of them from around 2009 to 2012, mainly targeted at foreigners. I thought it was an interesting point to start the exploration of the tension between foreigners and locals," he says.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, held after a press screening of the highly anticipated follow-up to his controversial package of short films, Sex.Violence.FamilyValues (2012), he said his new work is largely based on real events.

In the film, restaurant owner Onassis (Epy Quizon) becomes increasingly desperate as his business in Lucky Plaza fails following a food poisoning scandal.

His path and those of actor-turned-success coach Terence (Adrian Pang), teacher Michelle (Judee Tan), Pastor Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki), gangster Baby Bear (Guo Liang) collide, sparking an incident that touches communal raw nerves, locally and internationally.

The film's tagline is "S*** hits the fan in the world's safest city".

Germany-based distributor Media Luna has secured rights to the film, which should lead to its commercial release in Singapore early next year, says Kwek.

Singapore International Film Festival director Zhang Wenjie, 38, says the team picked Kwek's work as the festival's opening film because "it packs a punch".

He adds: "We've never seen a Singapore film like this. It's accessible and entertaining, but with depth. It's a great way to open the festival."

Too many independent films are constructed in a happy-go-lucky fashion, without enough attention given to overall story structure, dialogue or character development, but he says that Unlucky Plaza suffers from none of these faults.

The Singapore International Film Festival opens with the film on Dec 4 at 6.45pm. The screening at Shaw Lido 1 is sold out and another hall, Lido 4, has been added. Tickets are available online at Sistic. Other films that are sold out are London-based director Hong Khaou's Lilting on Dec 6, French director Olivier Assayas' Clouds Of Sils Maria, and John Woo's The Crossing, starring Zhang Ziyi.

Unlucky Plaza played at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and also screened at the Warsaw Film Festival last month. Actress Tan, 32, says with a laugh that filmgoers in Poland told her that "you guys speak really good English".

The film is one of the rare feature-length local works made in the English language.

The last feature to be made in English was the horror work Afterimages, which opened here in September. Locally made English-language movies have a dismal box-office history in Singapore.

Kwek, 35, has in the past observed how Singapore viewers' ears quickly zoom in on false notes when local characters speak English, taking them out of the world of the movie.

As writer-director, he worked hard to ensure that characters "code switch" their English correctly when moving between social situations, as English speakers in Singapore do, he says.

According to the Media Development Authority's (MDA) film classification website, Unlucky Plaza has an M18 rating for "coarse language".

Kwek says he finds the rating excessive and that an NC16 would have been fairer. An M18 rating excludes students from film and tertiary schools who might be interested in the Singapore themes explored in the story, he argues.

He received a script development grant of $20,000 from the MDA, but had to raise the film's $800,000 budget privately. An application for a New Talent Feature Grant, awarded to budding film-makers, was turned down for unspecified reasons.

Kwek says he is "really, really f****** tired" of being dogged in the media by the furore generated by Sex.Violence.FamilyValues, which was banned for its racial language, then given an M18 rating and screened last year after it was edited.

He was delighted by how when he screened Unlucky Plaza overseas, no one cared about his scrapes with censorship.

"We do need to get over it," he says.


This article was first published on Nov 13, 2014.
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