SINGAPORE - Culture Vulture
I knew next to nothing about Mister John when I bought tickets to a screening of the film at the Southeast Asian Film Festival - except that it was set in Singapore and starred an actor I liked, the ever-reliable Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game Of Thrones fame.
It's hard to summarise the beautifully shot Mister John, which was directed by the artful husband-and-wife film- makers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. A novella of a film at just over 90 minutes long, it is a bleak but also blackly funny character study of an Irish man, Gerry Devine, who arrives in Singapore in the wake of his brother John's death.
As Gerry encounters John's grieving widow, Kim (Zoe Tay), and visits his brother's seedy hostess bar, there is a gradual unravelling of his identity, with hallucinatory flashes of a parallel life, of stepping into his brother's shoes. It is clear that his brother was the livelier, brassier one, the light and life of parties in a den of vice, knitting people together and remaining decidedly chummy with everyone despite some difficult clients, to say the least.
Plenty of reviews have linked Mister John to a less sordid, more elegantly tuned version of Nicholas Refn's bloodbathed Only God Forgives (2013). But what was so tantalising about the film were its nods to a more obscure, and arguably more significant piece of cinema - Peter Bogdanovich's Saint Jack (1979), which was filmed and subsequently banned in Singapore for its more risque elements. (The ban was lifted in 2006.)
Saint Jack, based on the novel of the same name by Paul Theroux, tracks the genial Jack Flowers, a fixer who plans to open his own brothel in Singapore. While essentially a pimp, Jack, played sensitively by Ben Gazarra, is also the film's unlikely conscience and moral compass. He struggles to do right by his stable of girls and the people he counts as friends.
Having watched both films, I cannot help but feel that Mister John provides an epilogue of sorts to Saint Jack's journey.
In Mister John, that saint is now a mister, a man, reduced to mortality - in fact, he's dead before we even meet him, as the opening shot pans across John's body face down in a quarry lake in what is presumably Pulau Ubin. We're never given an answer to his unnatural death, but that gauzy halo around his life lives on, and Gerry can never quite take his place.
The certainty and familiarity that Jack possesses in Singapore is non-existent in the aimless Gerry when he arrives, and it is only through borrowing his brother's persona and finding a purpose that he tries to regain some of his masculinity. But the ending is still the same. Both men are worn down by their desperation to please, to fit into a country to which they do not belong.