`My Magic' - knowing where to Pull The Plug

A subject like an alcoholic magician made me itch to shout `exploitation'. I mean borrowing the spectacle of the exotic - Indian, fire-blowing, glass-eating and poverty seemed a convenient way to lure foreign audience. And with Eric Khoo's track record of films about the underclass and the marginalised, it was easy to label this as another depressing art-house pleaser. but I guess what pulled the poeple who could be pulled to the theatres was the Cannes nomination in the competition. There are many filmmakers like myself who want to uncode the secret behind this triumph.
In its opening credits, Francis Bosco who plays the lead is ordering liquor incessantly from the bar. The scene is repetitive and he has one line - `another one'. With each successive drink, his words morph into mumbles while we analyse the look of obssession or even compulsion in his eyes. Then, just as we may anticipate that he succumbs to the overdose, he chomps down the glass in a suprise act that also nicely serves as his opening act. Then with a touch of humour, he pays up - a grand total of $10 at the bar for all the endless drinks.
I admit I entered the cinema with my head shrouded in cynicism, without even resorting to a bag of popcorn. But thankfully, the story unfolded comfortably with utmost simplicity. For all that is written on the character's textured and oily face, his rubbery beer-belly and that overgrown and unruly mound of hair, it could be difficult crafting a story that would do enough justice to his life. But Wong Kim Hoh, the writer did a credible job of making it quite walk in the park. I guess, with the help of dinghy surroundings (reminiscent of Mee Pok Man), it established much of what the characters were stuck in, our lead is missing someone in his life and desperately wants this person back. His son is missing his grandmother and has to deal with gettng good grades in school amidst squalor and lots of alcoholic puke. Also, the tussle between father and son on money and responsibility is quickly established early in the film, making it the plot flow rather smoothly.
And the film was clever enough never to linger too long on any moment of melodrama or hysterics. If not for that, 2 things might have been very glaring - the poor cinematography and the expositional monologues of the son. The film was generally badly lit though the grittiness of the story might have given it a license to do so. Pardon me for a little racial sensitivty here, but I felt a lack of photographic sensitivity in a number of scenes when it came to capturing the Indian leads. Also, in several home scenes, the characters looked like they were living in make-shift ghettos though these were simply HDB flats (not worker dorms). While the lack of a strong visual style was palatable since the storytelling took centrestage, some shots were rather poorly composed with main character's eyes cut out from the frame. Other shots zoomed in so much that we could count the number of people who needed a treatment from London Skincare.
The boy who played the son was generally a gem on the screen. His eyes sparkled with determination and some innocence. But his monologues with his departed grandmother dented the otherwise graceful storytelling. While it added very little to our empathy of the boy's character, it raised a few questions which were unanswered - like the back-story behind their current deplorable state. Also, there was a certain trained quality about the monologues that screamed the word `script' in my head.

While it fully exploited Francis's Bosco's repertoire of tricks (I wished he asked for some royalty to the stunts performed), it delighted me witb a nice balance of cross-referencing to magic apart from simply using magic on its own. Like the flourishes the magician would execute to round off his trick, the characters surprised with clever reactions to the various menacing hurdles. I especially felt very satisfied when Francis blew fire at a particularly annoying character.

For all who have watched `My Magic' and left the cinema with warm and fuzzy feeling or perhaps even with traces of dried tears on their cheeks, I feel all is owed to the final scene. In a turn of events, father and son go on the run away from their home. This was where the father starts to gasp for breath and time. Though time was not on his side, he left with planting a beautiful thought in the mind of his son - the vision of the parents he had never seen - a young nurturing couple in magic act unlike the ones before - romantic, sincere and pure. I guess that act was not just for the kid, it was very much for us all. And in a very sweet way, it closed its curtains, deciding not to answer some the questions it left behind, forgiveably.
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