'Scot Free' by Chia Pei Zhen

The sensationalistic hook of Scot Free's synopsis makes the film seem much worse than it actually is. That sounds like damning praise, I know. But when you sell your film on the basis of two French tourists in Singapore accidentally killing someone and trying to dispose of the body, you do it at the expense of belittling your film's intelligence and subtle ambitions. Thankfully, wedged between the blood-slathered Vengeance: The Death Wish and Director's Cut in the Substation's First Take June screening, Scot Free couldn't get off with its comparatively muted killing, allowing its laudable attempts at comic absurdity (however few and half-successful) to shine through.

See, the ballyhoo'd killing in the synopsis only happens around the halfway mark; if you're waiting for it, the stuff before that might feel like a dreadful bore. If you shed those preconceptions, though, it becomes apparent that Scot Free is trying to be a lot freer with where its plot could run up to that point, and even after. The initial sight of the two French tourists in a cut-rate hotel lobby, one of them asking for directions to "westearn foood", prepares us for another stale fish-out-of-water story where the tourists are no more than conduits for the filmmakers to sniff and sneer at the more "exotic" aspects of our local culture. And this does happen somewhat, notably when they end up at an Indian food joint, and one of them wrinkles her nose as curry is plopped onto their plates.

But it turns out that Scot Free has more up its sleeve, especially when it comes to the nose-wrinkler of the duo (on the right in film still). As they talk over the food, she drops a few hairline surprises—surprises to us, anyway, because of our false preconceptions: The baby we thought she was worrying over in an earlier phone conversation turns out to be something else. She mentions a man she's bringing home for Christmas, but then tosses off a joke that lets us realize they're not romantically involved. She makes a remark that has us assume she is accepting of queer folk, but then she curtly protests when her friend refers casually to a male-to-female transsexual as a "she". These might not amount to much for other viewers, especially with the uninspired shot/reverse-shot editing and the actresses' slightly inorganic line deliveries, but I found that these conversational revelations prepared me to be surprised by where the story would take me.

Certainly, if not for the synopsis, I wouldn't have been prepared for a drunk German tourist stumbling into their hotel room at night, and it's even funnier that the actor playing him does it in a kind of fazed, slow-mo walk, rather than an angry zombie lurch. But let's not place all blame on the synopsis, because the film also falls prey to that now-clich├ęd trick of starting at the end before looping back to the events that got them to that point. This doesn't work for Scot Free because, as I have suggested, the film relies most on projecting a certain unpredictability to whatever happens next.

Nonetheless, it manages to avoid not preparing us too much for the tourists' instinctive, alternative use of a local fruit; or the choice of vehicle they flag down to flee the law; or the mishap that the vehicle itself gets into, suggested mostly by the briefly-espied sight of a spinning bicycle wheel; or the way that it never seems like the police are even after them at all. Near the end, there's even a brief tender moment when one of the tourists offers to take the blame for the other, even though it's unsolicited and we get the feeling they weren't that close to start with, and it's a tiny injection of feeling into the scattered bits of chaos. I wanted more, a lot more, and given how I leave some films wanting none of it, that's not at all a bad thing to ask.

'Scot Free' was Chia Pei Zhen's graduate thesis film at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. It was screened as part of Substation's First Take this month, and was among the Singapore Panorama Shorts slate at the Singapore International Film Festival last April.

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