'Autumn in March' & my attempt to sell you a DVD at $18

Yet another local film walks on the tight rope that separates commercial from arthouse. You know it never pays. Yet this is so much the dream of many first-time filmmakers – to want to make a film that has a following and yet stay true to their artistic integrity. Very few people would classify Huang Yi Liang, a TV veteran as arthouse. His place on commercial TV is as sturdy as a fortress. But take note, on the Dvd cover of ‘Autumn In March’, he is known as Ng Aik Leong, a name that shouts ‘serious artist’ more than the brash ‘Huang Yi Liang’.

‘Autumn In March’ goes down easy on the average palate. It has a discernible plot that even hooks you on mildly. It has seasoned TV actors who have passed the basic screen tests. It is shot professionally on film, so no issues on grainy shots, shaky camerawork and distorted colouring. It has all the commercial ingredients in place except that it’s got some arthouse touches on editing. So why are cinemas not picking it up?

Here is my little two cents worth that hopefully make you part with $18 just to support our budding actor-turned-director. The film belongs to a bit of a thriller-mystery type genre, with horror overtones. A mysterious girl, complete with a freaky-kooky bowl-shaped haircut is looking for tenants for the big bungalow which she occupies alone. At her asking price is out-of-this-world – S$200 a month. Like the princess who never laughed, batches after batches of keen up-takers are literally shooed away because they do not pass her screening. Then, almost miraculously, her chosen 3 tenants turn up at the same time. They include a career lady (Phyllis Quek), a young pianist (Nathaniel Ho) and an ex-convict (Bernard Tan). Their common thread is they are all running away from something.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn more about the characters and their reasons for looking for an escape. The lady is on the run from loan sharks, something that appears too easily on Mediacorp dramas. The pianist wants to pursue his music dreams that are frowned upon by his father. The ex-convict is too ashamed to face his wife whom he once abused. While these back-stories are credible, it felt like revisiting beaten grounds. The film has not really uncovered new facets to old material that would allow me to say “I learnt something different about those Ah Beng loan-sharks”. More could have been explored to make these 3 stories feel less like tools to keep the engine of the main plot running. In crude terms, these three-in-ones or threesomes, if you like, are too conveniently used.

I cannot deny the story does have a hook that makes you want to watch on till almost the end. That I guess is where also the commercial value of the film would originate. We are kept in the dark about the reason behind the girl’s hysterics. Along the way, we are only fed soundbites of scenes from her past superimposed on sepia-toned headless figures – a rather awkward way to withhold identities. Still, when the truth was starting to unravel, there was a spine-tingling moment that justified the repetitive peek-a-boo flashbacks.

Despite his SBC/TCS/Mediacorp experience, the acting was not all formulaic and superficial. Aik Leong has somehow managed to milk some sincere and raw emotions from a number of his actors (not all). Nathaniel looks very comfortable in his role. Aunty Mary is a seasoned concoction of hysterics and gripping tension.

First-timer Sheila Sim puts in a credible though forgettable performance. The person who looks most uncomfortable in his role is the director himself, Aik Leong. But I suspect it was a personal challenge to himself to make a 180 degree turn in onscreen persona. But get your sense of fashion right… garish floral shirts are so yesterday!

It seems my more benign comments are evened out by the bitchy ones, so how am I going to help you justify parting with your $18? Your mother. Give her something different to watch. An alternative to the channel 8 TV dramas. Something that even ends with a meaningful message. Aiya, if all else fails, just tell her Huang Yi Liang appears as an ‘Ah Kua’.

‘Autumn in March’ is available at several video stores islandwide. Alternatively, if you are lucky enough, you can buy directly from him. He is doing door-to-door of his Dvds. He has made 'appearances' in Bedok and Toa Payoh to date. I bought 2 Dvds because I support effort. So go grab yours too!

Check out 'Autumn in March' here.

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