Review: We Not Naughty

(John's first review is here.)

Steeped in Jack Neo’s trademark brand of histrionics and suffocating proselytism, We Not Naughty is Neo’s attempt to recreate the magic of his big hit, I Not Stupid, but ends up being a tiresome exercise in platitudes. It’s a charge his supporters like to dismiss, and the standard defence for such drab garbage is that the values Neo sells are important, and that his films' themes are relevant to modern Singaporean society; yet with this film, Neo has contrived a moral message not just dated, but grossly superficial in treatment.

Shawn Lee and Joshua Ang, two of Neo’s protégés whom Singaporeans have seen grow up on screen through several of Neo’s films, play Wei Jie and Jian Ren, best friends in a fictional polytechnic, both suffering from a series of familial tribulations lifted straight out of an episode of Oprah. Wei Jie has a gambling addict father and his mother (Xiang Yun) belittles him. Jian Ren comes from a well-to-do, comfortable single parent family but has a strained relationship with his mother, in part due to his mom’s favouritism towards his brother. He becomes rebellious to spite his mother and even becomes a runner for the loansharks.

CK (an oddly miscast Daniel Yun), their lecturer, tries to build rapport with Wei Jie and Jian Ren and ends up being snubbed. Later on, in a ludicrous act of solidarity with his students - he foolhardily accepts a forfeit imposed by them - earns their ‘respect’ and support. As if such a ridiculous event – a slap in the face to any self-respecting teacher – wasn’t enough, Neo takes CK’s savior complex to a whole new level when the latter makes huge personal and monetary sacrifices to bail his two favourite rascals out of trouble.

The film is shoddily cobbled together, padded out to an overly long run time with intermittent gags that are more repellent than funny (such as a scene when a character goes into labour towards the end). While there are still some scenes that may tickle, (though few and far between,) in We Not Naughty there is little sign of Neo’s instinctual feel for where comedy and commentary intersect, an artistic sensibility that helped make I Not Stupid so hilarious, provocative, and heartfelt at the same time. The film lacks an organic quality found in some of Neo’s earlier works, and naturalism and tonal consistency are almost non-existent; everything feels overly calculated and yet wildly uneven here - one moment Neo is laboriously engineering a laugh, the next he is (outrageously) bidding for your tears, in slo-mo scenes of melancholy played out to overwrought music.

Accusing Neo of shallow sentimentalism is, of course, something which is not new. But this time round, with We Not Naughty, Neo’s mechanisms for emotional resonance are not merely simplistic, they are ineffectual. Never has there been a Jack Neo film filled with such a densely packed array of incident – Wei Jie’s mother concusses in a domestic fight, Wei Jie’s sister gets attacked and shaved of her hair; and those are only some events in the first half of the film – that has such a glaring absence of emotional impact. For all its sentimentalism, there is a lack of feeling.

Part of this has to do with the acting, which is consistently terrible, if not abysmal. I really feel bad for saying this, because we really do try to support local films and actors here, but the performances are so half-baked that they make a typical fame seeker on any given reality television program look like a frigging Oscar winner. (Snooki, looks like your Hollywood ambitions may come true after all!) Stubbornly persisting in keeping the bar on scene-chewing, Neo has made a film where every actor drowns in histrionics rather than act. It’s easy to overlook this and say that they suit Neo’s style of cinema, but isn’t that really just allowing mediocrity to perpetuate?

The same goes for the insipid humour in the film. While it is consistent with Neo’s lowbrow humour found in many of his other films (and that is perfectly fine in itself), here the lack of verve and inspiration sticks out like a sore thumb; most of the funny scenes come across as afterthoughts, pushed to the backdrop in favour of Neo’s moral messages. People who defend Neo say that his humour reflects the taste of the nation, and that this ‘cock’ (a term coined by Colin Goh of talkingcock.com that means nonsensical jibberish) humour is really the Singaporean humour. If box office receipts are anything to judge by, there may be some truth in that. Given Singapore’s lack of cultural capital, I can understand Singaporeans’ eagerness to claim this humour as their own; ‘cock’ humour has become their bad religion, and Neo its true apostle. And yet while slapstick may well be an inextricable part of local comedy, it must be done right – with imagination and zaniness, like in last year’s hilarious Homecoming and some of Neo’s earlier works – and not become a mere excuse for lazy writing and crassness, as is the case here.

But these are the least of Neo’s crimes in the film, chief of which are his specious messages. Here, he peddles the same old feel-good uplifting sentiment that has formed the backbone of many of his previous films: every young person has talent and worth; familial love is an all-powerful force that survives any hardship; that it is never too late to start anew in life. Praiseworthy, perhaps. What annoys is Neo’s hard-sell, which manifests in his disdain for any subtlety and nuance, and in the numerous plot contrivances that simply exist to facilitate the introduction of Neo’s messages. His commentary holds little weight because we never view any of the characters as flesh-and-blood people – they come across more as mere ciphers for Neo’s digital sermon, and their revelations never feel authentically earned. There is no plausible change of heart in any character. Instead of gradually developing characters, they change radically over one scene, such as when Wei Jie’s sister starts crying out “I love you” at least ten times to her mother after a traumatic incident. (I could understand the crying, and maybe a hug, but all the “I love you-s” were just waaaay too far-fetched.)

Whilst the messages of I Not Stupid, and to a lesser extent Money No Enough, came about in a time where they were relevant and important, the key to their resonance was that they captured the zeitgeist of their times, which was partly because such issues had never been broached on such a public scale before they hit screens island-wide. With We Not Naughty, it is anachronistic for Neo to assume that we still needed him to repeat the same old messages, as if our society hasn’t grown (and he certainly hasn’t as a filmmaker). It is also insulting for viewers, because Neo so forcefully sells his values, it borders on chastising us, as if we lacked a moral compass ourselves.

Neo so overreaches in social commentary that all the issues he explores are stretched too thin, and there isn’t a single satisfactory resolution or adequate exploration of any. Circumstances magically shift to accomodate the happy ending in the end, of course, since this is a family-oriented Chinese New Year film, and it seemed every major character drank the Kool-Aid and they all decided to get along. Of course, given that this film is timed to coincide with the Chinese New Year festivities, one have to accept its limitations as a family-friendly film, and call me shallow here, but I just wished that the film was a little more fun.

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