Review: Imperfect

The teenage boys that roam around the streets listlessly in Imperfect carry their sullen, gloomy countenances like badges of honour. These boys are part of the local gang scene, and their world-weary looks are both a symptom of being marginalized by society, as well as a way of protecting their own fragile feelings and their dignity. Unable to excel in the system – more for lack of trying, rather than actual ineptitude – they abandon any goals in favour of aimless living, seeking the validation of other disaffected youngsters. Like so many young people these days, nihilism wields a death grip over their lives.

Playing the aimless, disaffected youths are Edwin Goh and Ian Fang, stars of the hit Channel 8 drama On the Fringe, which shares with its television serial sibling not just its stars, but its thematic concerns. Edwin Goh plays Jianhao, a hot-headed young man trying to stay out of bad company, but who soon, under the goading of his money-lusting best friend Zach (Fang), gets embroiled in gangland mayhem. Theirs is a brotherhood of unwavering commitment, with both parties willing to risk flesh and limb for the other. Kimberly Chia, also of On the Fringe fame, plays the geeky but angel-faced good girl, who is the love interest for Jianhao, and who manages to inspire in the latter a modicum of responsibility and decency.

Ah, yes. The cherubic love interest that tames the bad boy and sets him on the right path – where exactly have we seen that before? Imperfect draws on all sorts of youth-gone-astray clichés, only to, in the end, offer up one simplistic moral: the importance of making the right decisions. It’s an important message, to be sure, and one can’t fault director Steve Cheng for wanting to peddle the message. What grates is the hard-sell, and the poor storytelling. The “big twist” right at the end involving Zhihua (Li Nanxing), Jianhao’s gang leader, felt simultaneously predictable and silly, and it was a blatant dramatic contrivance to close out Jianhao’s character arc, by bringing out in him genuine repentance.

So why is it that despite all the cheesy, annoying didacticism, I still found a lot to love in Imperfect? Perhaps it’s seeing Li Nanxing bring his A-game back to film; previously unmemorable and even boring in the similarly preachy The Ultimate Winner (also backed by Cornerstone Pictures), here he is fascinating to watch. Cutting an imposing figure as an unflappable gang leader (who smartly disallows the selling of drugs on his turf out of fear of police raids), he emanates such don’t-mess-with-me menace with just a frown and sway of his gaze. And when you thought he was going to stay uptight the entire movie, he turns tender when sharing the scene with Chiang Tsu-ping, who plays Jianhao’s perpetually upset mother. Their first reunion – these two have a history - in the movie is also its best, full of authentic, genuine feeling, and free of affectation.

In contrast, the young kids come across as almost lacking in any screen presence, but this is more in line with the film’s thematic concerns of youthful disenfranchisement than an actual indictment on the film. The somewhat dull performances from the young actors, most annoying of which is Jianhao’s little sister who cries in every other scene (Cheng is using a young actor to wring tears out of you, beware!), is also buoyed by the directorial flourishes and beautiful shots of the cityscape. The screenplay may be uninspired, clichéd, verging on the melodramatic and extremely preachy, but Cheng injects such energy into the proceedings that you can almost overlook all those shortcomings. A scene where a mole from a rival gang tries to kill Li Nanxing’s character is sleekly executed, right from the freeze frame of broken glass shards to the slo-mo knife-dodging to the fight choreography.

The standout set piece, however, is clearly the climactic fight at the end: with rain pelting on the gang members’ faces (the storm is a metaphor for all hell breaking loose, and an ominous sign that something bad is about to come), they beat each other up and engage in a ballet of knives. It’s a little too gratuitous for me, all the ostentatious it’s-cool-so-let’s-do-it! slo-mo shots, but nonetheless beautiful. The burst of brutality at display here is at once counterpoint to all the other preachy Singaporean movies Imperfect finds itself getting lumped with – violence is briefly glamorized in this scene - and also antidote to the film’s out-and-out sentimentality.

Imperfect is more of the same Singaporean cinematic fare: melodramatic, sentimental to the point of being cheesy, and even didactic. If the melodrama gets a little overbearing at times, it’s partly because the filmmakers are acknowledging the heightened feelings and sensations of the hormonally-charged youths, and are staying true to their emotional turbulence. I’m not generally a fan of such preachy material, but I do think that there is some decent filmmaking in this film, and I found it fun and relatable at parts, imperfect as it may be. Focusing on the good and choosing to forgive (while acknowledging) the bad, well, that’s what Imperfect is about anyway, isn’t it?
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