`The Loner's Trilogy' by Yee Chang Kang

The first time I looked at the title of the screening – Loner’s Trilogy, I wanted to laugh. Aren’t all Singapore films about loners? Aren’t all short films lonely? Like it’s usually a man, depressed, puffs a few cigarettes, hangs around in the void deck. A trilogy is not enough really, it’s an anthology.

Wait a minute. It’s really a Loner’s trilogy. Not a set of 3 films loosely packed together. So I take my words back. And also, films are getting more crowded these days. They come in twos like the Papaya sisters in 881, in fours like 18 Grams of Love and in plenty like The Days. But The Loner’s trilogy is not really lonely and depressing, the actors come in a troupe – they switch roles in each of the 3 short films and do it rather competently. In fact, there is big bunch of them. A real motley bunch of all shapes, colours and sizes (oops). Chang Kang, the director can almost do a Austin Powers with them all.

The first short called `Good Time' opens with a rather rude shot of a guy doing some business in the toilet with his butt exposed. Little did I know that was to set the tone for most of the rest of Chang Kang's mise-en-scene. Then a marker pens rolls into his view from the other cubicle. A hands extends to retrieve it but retracts immediately when he tries to help. His `neighbour' runs out and he is curious to know who that is. creeping over the other cubicle, he discovers a grafitti ad that reads `For Good Time, please call .......'. No prizes for guessing that he does.

The next scene opens with another example of graphic physical depiction - a shot of a `chubby' feet rinsing underneath the tap. It turns out to be a foot massage parlour owned by a short preppy looking boss and manned by a fleshy looking student-looking girl. This is where the direction was quite brilliant - Boss intimidatingly chases her to man the counter and she replies meekly in a `part-timer' kind of tone, sometimes mumbling, drawing lots of giggles.

By now, it was clear the director has a penchant for a quirky, attention-grabbing, statement-making style. Following the grafitti, we see our boy back at his plastic products-covered provision shop work place making calls to `Good Time'. In between looking bored and bothered by his work, he sometimes hams it up by scratching certain body joints or perching himself on top of the counter (like there was no boss around). I felt sometimes this works as part of his genre, like when his wandering hands would accidentally fall on the bra cups and sometimes, it was a little too deliberate, like sitting on top of the counter.

From the Sinema bio, Chang Kang has won a award for making the `Mumbai la' TV commercial. I thought it was really punchy and well-scripted. Strains of the same directorial verve and boldness can be seen in `Good Time'. After several failed attempts to get through, our lonely shopkeeper boy eats a lonely meal of cup noodles and even fails to get `good sleep'. While his desperation is creatively manisfested in the form of exaggerated poses, his 2-dimensional acting unfortunately makes it as superficial as a KFC commercial. Which is a real pity for this short because of the 3, it is the most compactly written and ends with a real narrative punch.

The dramatic irony ends and he finds out the real identity of the party he has been calling by patronising the shop. But the real punch comes, via a playback, when the culprit behind the grafitti is revealed. So now you know who to approach to write an ad for your massage business - Chang Kang.
The 2nd piece titled `Dai Bao' or big bun (oops, didnt mean to sound vulgar) gave him his break in the circle when it was an SIFF finalist and was also programmed for the Asian Film Symposium. It is a slightly longer and looser drama about my favourite actress of his troupe - Chloe Masada, as a bao seller.

She works in a coffeeshop alongside a bitchy-mouth colleague. Suggested by a progression of mood shots of her face looking worn and sullen on the bus journey, we understand the banality of her job. (Wow, she is also someone's employee like in `Good Time'!). Her only cause for delight at the coffeeshop is her `Dai Bao', apparently a handsome male customer who like to buy the big chicken buns. I like watching Chloe in this because she hams it up less and we get to see more of what she draws from her real emotions. Which is quite a range here. When at work, she struggles to forge an assertiveness, when alone, she is vulnerable and emotionally less restrained. And when in the music shop, she displays fairly competent comic timing in spurning off the eager advances of the Malay shopkeeper.

Compared to `Good Time', `Dai Bao' is narratively less pointed and more a stroll in the park, a ride in a cable car. It also carries more depth in the use of the moniker `Dai Bao' because not only are there double references to the bun and the male customer, it indirectly refers to her as well. Not that the link to her physicality is easy to avoid but it is also her inherently soft and endearing nature. And it is also a tale of serendipity towards the end. Though `Dai Bao' did not call her out to celebrate New Year's eve, he business with him was not finished.

Unwillingly, she agrees to spend the night with the Malay music shop keeper, in a karaoke. And as the hours tick by, she gets used to him and becomes more inclusive. And in true Chang Kang-fashion (if there is one), it ends with a twist, really sweet one. More like Tau Sar bao I guess.

The final story of the trilogy `Peter Ho' is about a tour guide who brings tourists around Singapore and his lonesome life outside his identity as a guide. Well, of all the 3 shorts, I would call this the most narratively free and perhaps least disciplined piece. Yes, ill-disciplined yet exciting (not consistently).

The film opens with a series of hand-held shots on tourists and strangers in the immediate vicinity of the tour bus. The tour guide's introduction is juxtaposed with the images (sometimes inappropriate) to generate some clever subversive humour. Peter Ho, the tour guide is then introduced. He is responsible and work-driven. Unfortunately, he works in a company where his buddy is nuisance and his boss is half-blind to real issues. Unlike the previous 2 shorts, the issue of conflict is more subtle and is slowly established. It is not always clear when the conflict begins. But as a starting point for some serious plot development, it was the breaking down of the air-con on the tour bus. This led to an explicit conflict between him and his colleague and boss.
Work place frustrations lead to personal frustrations at home. Stripped to reveal a pot-bellied torso and still downing that can of Tiger Beer, his domestic behaviour and exposed physicality reinforce this sense of a mid-life/mid-job crisis. It is again to be noted Chang Kang's penchant for butt shots. Okay.... back to serious reviewing. As a clever and poignant plot point, over a conversation he realises that while he has led numerous groups all over Singapore, he has yet to travel far away. This is worsened by a tourist who was able to outbeat his knowledge of the Merlion (apparently made of cement fondue, I learnt something new).

`Peter Ho' on the whole still retains a lot of the director's trained ability to manipulate events to form a plot with enough punch and surprise. I liked the journey of his own awakening in the story though the office scenes could have been more concise to lessen the TV drama effect. Interestingly, the camera work is more distinct in its close ups and cutaways on Singapore icons and other visually impactful objects and people. Though not always instrumental to the storytelling, they did enrichen the tapestry of moods and inner thoughts that went with the story.

One more thing, we all wish we had a rock band who could provide a convenient option for film music. I know he does, he plays in one called Typewriter. Okay, maybe not convenient but how about synergistic? (lol!)
Catch The Loner's Trilogy again at where else????
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