Unpretentious fun in 'When Hainan Meets Teochew' by Han Yew Kwang

Han Yew Kwang returns from the triumph of "18 Grams of Love" with his third feature film, "From Hainan Meets Teochew", a charmingly vivacious "anti-romantic comedy" (as he calls it in an interview with the Straits Times) about two people from disparate backgrounds falling in love? (and it is a question mark here) with each other.

The Hainan character (Lee Chau Min) is a manly woman (MW); the Teochew (Tan Hong Chye) an effeminate man(EM). They get off on a bad note, but by a fortuitous turn of events, become confidantes to one another, perhaps sensing in each other a kindred spirit. The ebullient, slightly off-kilter ex-girlfriend of MW, played by Yeo Yann Yann, appears suddenly and her re-emergence serves as a catalyst to propel the narrative, leading MW and EM to confront their (very ambiguous) feelings for each other.

As far as humour goes, "From Hainan Meets Teochew" goes the slapstick route, opting to elicit laughs using some crude and kitschy elements: the tussle between MW and EM over a bra in the early moments of the film gives you an idea of what to expect for the rest of the movie. There are also some stagey moments such as the little one liners delivered acapella style by an office mob. Having said that, this sort of humour still goes well with local audiences, and I believe Han Yew Kwang was adopting this approach to make a film more palatable to a local audience because of its already controversial subject nature. However, audiences with a thing for wit might find the overwrought nature of the comedy here less digestible.

I thought the cinematography for most of the parts was rather plain; the camera angles were rather orthodox and camerawork was relatively static. The colour of the shots did not seem overly desaturated and did not over-romanticize the HDB landscape. Juxtaposed against the relative simplicity of such shots, the surreal sequences really shone through and made an impact. They were gorgeously filmed and laugh-out-loud hilarious, with MW in manly attire of a shirt and suspenders, and EM in full drag. The editing also helped lend the film some gravitas; it constantly oscillated between the hilarious snippets to the tender moments, keeping the film from either descending into pure farce or sagging into melodrama.

The film is competent in both its funny moments and more somber, affective ones. However, I thought choosing such extreme examples to subvert gender conventions actually worked against its effectiveness in its romantic ambitions; by employing these caricatures in a romantic comedy, the film works to bring audiences' attention to the social implications of the quixotic relationship because the emphasis is on their other-ness. I for the most part saw their relationship as a support system for each other in their journey to overcome their own respective struggles; I never really saw it as a bona fide courtship. (Although Han Yew Kwang's interview with the Straits Times was enlightening. In it he mentioned that the film is antiromantic in the sense he "has turned the idea of love between a man and a woman on its head" and that "they do not fall in love in the traditional man-woman sense but come to an accommodation that resembles it".)

Another small gripe is that the Teochew-Hainan interplay element seemed to pale in comparison to the playing of gender conventions, existing only as part of the plot's embellishment. For a film with such a title, one will definitely be expecting more cross-cultural comedy.

The film is unpretentious in its blatant aim to entertain and tickle audiences; it seldom takes itself seriously as opposed to local queer cinema, being almost whimsical in its treatment of gender other-ness but never once being denigrating. Not quite a thoughtful meditation on cross cultural relationships nor a groundbreaking work in queer cinema, it is nonetheless warm, light-hearted entertainment that is thoroughly enjoyable if one is looking for a good laugh.

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