Review: Long Long Time Ago 2 // 我们的故事2 (2016)
Everything that you thought Jack Neo threw out of the window in Part One of ‘Long Long Time Ago’ for the sake of reinvention was brought back again in Part Two. These include preachiness, television-style histronics, and in-your-face product placements. Resting on the shaky grounds of a paper-thin plot, the film very soon resembled a montage of national-education commercials, reminding us to respect your elders, work hard and foster racial harmony. If Part One and Two were made together, one wonders how the discrepancy could be so great, where Part One had most of the suspense, substance and special effects.
‘Long Long Time Ago 2’ picks up where Part One ended - the pig sty. Zhao Di (the lead character played by Aileen Tan) builds a pig farm form scratch, with her children. This undertaking proved, very soon, to be rocky with Ah Kun (played Mark Lee), trying to make things difficult for her again by throwing all kinds of demands on Zhao Di. These include mending the leak in the roof and buying a new television set or the family. Unfortunately, many of these were little bumps that amounted to nothing and the plot only started half an hour into the film on the eve of Chinese New Year, when the kids, who were playing with sparklers and firecrackers, caused a fire in Ah Kun’s bonsai plant. Ah Kun presumptuously pushed the blame on Zhao Di and this led further sibling rivalry (is this the season for sibling rivalries?) However, partly due to Zhao Di’s submissive nature, there was a lack of a clear build-up in tis rivalry. Instead, we are taken on this virtual carousel of the government throwing new regulations, Ah Kun voicing a new complaint, the Lim patriach weighing in, Zhao Di’s eldest daughter defending Zhao Di (and getting whacked by Zhao Di) and the chopping and cooking of pig feed.
The redemption was found in the sub plot of an interracial marriage between Ah Hee and Rani. The swiftness in which Rani was introduced into the story was commendable. She simply came as the mystery girlfriend of Ah Hee to his family. The film then wasted no time in milking the culture-clash for laughs, especially with Rani calling all of the adults at the dinner table either ‘aunties’ or ‘uncles’, disregarding the supposedly more respectful relative names. The laughs continued when the father turned out to be the health inspector who used to raid street hawkers and had a previous ‘encounter’ with Ah Hee. Jack Neo must be lauded for bravely tackling a sensitive topic. Despite milking stereotypes and cultural differences for humour, it was dealt with respectfully and with empathy. One fine example is how Rani confessed to Ah Hee about how uneasy she felt being the only Indian eating at the family dinner. The wedding dowry discussion was another ‘culture-clash’ made funny, with the two families offering to follow each other’s tradition, to avoid paying the dowry. if Jack Neo wanted to claim another first (like the many ‘firsts’ he has claimed for Ah Boys to Men), this is the first depiction of an interracial marriage in Singapore’s formative years. In fact, the kampung setting made the wedding sequences even more iconic.
However, a smattering of a few good scenes do not save the film from its fundamental problems like weak plot development, characterisation, trite direction and its propensity to ‘teach’ the audience what we were supposed to gather from the film. Very often, the plot was predictable and issues resolved too quickly. Just as the real plot started late, it also ended too early with a big argument that drove Ah Kun into a very ‘shitty’ vehicle accident. Just like a television soap opera, that becomes a turning point in his relationship with the family and Zhao Di. The film also suffers from trying to portray too many characters with only perfunctory shots that carried little depth. It seemed during every big event or argument, the camera went on ‘round-table’ mode and need to seek a talking-head reaction from every adult character. While Aileen Tan played Zhao Di to perfection, Zhao Di’s two-dimensional goody-two-shoes characterisation became increasingly exhausting to watch. Bringing respite to the shallow characterisation was actually Su Ting, Zhao Di’s oldest daughter (also the film’s narrator, until Jack Neo usurped that voice at the end of the film!), who brought some depth to the film with her tussle between her values and the complexities of adult politics, and also displaying emotions that ranged from vulnerability to strength.
Is it fair to say Jack Neo is running out of new ideas? Not entirely because after all, he broke many new grounds with ‘Long Long Time Ago’ just like how he did with ‘Ah Boys to Men’. This was actually a painstakingly-accurate portrayal of Kampung life which pulled all stops at attaining authenticity and risks were taken with the recreation of a flood, riots and other technically challenging scenes. Perhaps, it was because most of the money-shots were parked in Part One, in order to entice viewers to come back for Part Two, that Part two felt like a let down. But on closer look, stripping away the visual spectacles, both parts were trying too hard to entertain rather than telling a story, which brings home the big question about commercial films, where to draw the line between entertaining and getting the story across? Seems like an easy question to answer but not always clear-cut in practice.
Review by Jeremy Sing