HomeComing (笑着回家) Review: Home Is Where the Heart Is

As the saying goes, "a house is not a home". Well, this begs the question: what exactly is home?

There are some local films that attempt to examine this problematic concept of home, as well as its attendant notions of belonging and community. The more ambitious ones conflate home with the nation and attempt to explore one's identity with regards to the Singaporean soul - whatever the hell that may be.

Homecoming (笑着回家) is smart in that its premise cleverly helps to navigate itself out of the quagmire of impossible answers and heavy-handed philosophical musings. The onus here is on the journey; its conceit is that it thrives on the (reasonable) assumption that audiences carry a tacit knowledge that wherever the characters end up in the end, that is 'home' to them. It does not matter how different the homes of the different characters are, because the film makes it clear it is the ride that matters most. And it sure is one hell of a ride!

The film weaves together three stories with vastly varying tones. There is the insufferable chef Daniel Koh (Mark Lee) firing his entire staff on the day he is supposed to prepare a reunion dinner for the Minister of Culture, except for the capable, ebullient restaurant manager Fei Fei (Jacelyn Tay). As they say, when it rains it pours, so somehow amidst the chaos in his restaurant, he also finds the opportunity to further push away his already somewhat estranged daughter (Koe Yeet).

There is the pair of newlyweds, Boon (Huang Wenhong) and Jamie (Rebecca Lim), who just got back to their parents' place for reunion dinner, except that a small dilemma plagues them. They have a free flight to Bali on the night of the reunion dinner, and so have to leave early; they have no idea how to break this news to their parents. While somewhat lapsing into caricature, the couple - in particular the English-educated wife played by Rebecca Lim - does reflect Gen X's and Gen Y's growing disdain with tradition.

Then there is Karen Neo (Jack Neo) and her irritable son Ah Ming(Ah Niu) who embark on a roadtrip of sorts to get back to Kuala Lumpur for their family's reunion dinner. Of course, Jack Neo's cross dressing stint is one of the highlights of the film (and a fact not forgotten by the film's marketing team). He hamming it up here as a naggy aunty brings to mind his exuberant turn as the wildly hilarious Liang Po Po years back. The scenes in this third story contain the funniest moments in the film. The mother-son duo has a dynamic chemistry between them, but this is quickly weighed down by Koe Yeet's character bumping into them on the coach they are taking. Her character is an emotional trainwreck in the aftermath of her father's outburst towards her; her entrance into this scene is reminiscent of the wet blanket crashing a party he was not invited to. Her forced expressions are starkly foregrounded next to Jack Neo's and Ah Niu's naturalism as they effortlessly inahbit their characters, and her scenes on the bus with them feel extremely uneven in tone and energy. Having said that, the doe-eyed Koe does bring a certain vulnerability to her character.

Fortunately, despite all the emotional histrionics of an angsty teen, the mood is buoyed upon the arrival of a taxi driver, Zool (Afdlin Shauki), who helps rush Karen Neo and Ah Ming back to their home.

Directed by Lee Thean-Jean, who has written and directed episodes of TV's The Pupil, Homecoming (笑着回家)is quite the debut feature film. From the get go, Lee displays a keen eye for pacing and he shows a clear aptitude for drawing audiences in. The opening tracking shot of Jacelyn Tay entering the restaurant while on the phone and then leading all the way into the kitchen is beautifully filmed. And within the first five minutes, all hell breaks loose.

While the first two storylines seem to take a backseat to Karen Neo's misadventures, overall Lee has handled the multi-layered narratives with much aplomb. Due in part to clever editing, the newlyweds' more intense and sombre scenes are quickly balanced by Karen Neo's hilarious antics; the storylines work to complement each other. Hence, the film doesn't descend into over sentimentalism and melodrama nor lose itself in whimsy comedy.

Still, some character arcs feel more fully fleshed out than the others. The 30-something bumbling but likeable goofer Ah Ming is a mere functionary - he is only in the film to elicit laughs (nothing wrong with that though). Perhaps the writers should have left it at that, because the feeble attempt to complete his character arc at the end by matchmaking him to a somewhat hot lady seemed almost superfluous. Koe Yeet's emotionally battered character could have been a highlight of the film - she goes through a journey of self discovery and finds healing in the kindess of Karen Neo and her son - and yet her stilted mannerisms were rather distracting and difficult to sit through. She pouts; she frowns; she looks sad; her acting lends no nuance to what could have been a rather interesting character, though on the plus side Koe does carry an air of vulnerability that makes her character more sympathetic. I thought Mark Lee's cranky chef and Rebecca Lim's Jamie had moving and believable storylines, in particular the former. After going through hell, with a little help from his friend Fei Fei, he discovers the value of family and realizes he has neglected his own.

As a local comedy, the film works on most levels: it has the gags that are at turns unsettling and funny, and it has the requisite plethora of clumsy antics to fuel the slapstick humour. And though far from being perfect (being riddled with minor plotholes and such), the film still works as an brilliant affirmation of the family unit and its importance, without descending into moralizing it. And when you come to the end of the film after one hell of a rollercoaster ride, it is easy to feel a strange kinship to some of the characters, almost as if you were the one who just went home yourself to have dinner with them.

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