Review: Red Numbers

In the common heartlander psyche of Singapore, there are a few things people will not stop talking about. Mediacorp artistes, cost of living, scandals and 4D numbers. Dominic Ow, director of the film Red Numbers, knows this too well and offers the audience an eyeful of numbers enough to make you queue at Singapore Pools all year round. To some, not all, that might just be the best draw about watching this movie.

Dominic is a new director in the scene. He left his stable military career to pursue his passion in filmmaking. Like any military operation, the ‘operational-readiness’ of the team behind this movie is palpable. The movie comes well-armed with veteran Mediacorp artistes like Hong Huifang, Edmund Chen, Henry Thia and Chen Shucheng, a real Fengshui master (Master Hui) who is also an instrumental character in the movie, some scenic draws like Bukit Brown, CGI, editing support and an auspicious and timely date to launch it all – just before the $10m Chinese New Year Toto draw.

So does it live up to the expectation of number-spinner? It does, to sometimes, a drone. Delightfully, the movie opens with a montage sequence of objects with numbers. The random juxtaposition of ‘numbered shots’ lends it a rather edgy arthouse feel which sets an raw and edgy tone for the movie. Then, as the movie progresses, the director milks several opportunities to offer auspicious 4-number combinations to the audience. With Fengshui Master Hui on the team, it’s seems to be the movie’s way of guaranteeing everyone goes home with goodies in their hands, especially if they don’t buy the movie. Carpark numbers, door plates, special dates etc. provide 4D number combinations and these are flashed onto the screen almost indiscriminately.

While the topic of 4D numbers gives it the license to churn the motif in a repetitive way, it could have been more sure-footed in telling a good story about greed than resort to the gimmicks. Speaking of which, peeling off the theatrics, Red Numbers is not without heart and a good narrative hook. It does have a compelling set-up that, unfortunately, is not always well manoeuvred by the director. It tells the story of a Chinese young man in Singapore, whose is keen to change his fortune and upon seeking Fengshui master, he learns that he has only 3 lucky minutes in his life and the key to unlocking fortune in his luckless life is linked to a family of boisterous characters whose grandfather knows what the winning 4D combination is.

Given the exoticism and mystery of a set-up like this, a ride with our protagonist seems to promise a great adventure no less. However, it finds itself hurled into a narrative speed train without enough introduction of who he and why he wants to change his fortune so badly. He gets entangled quickly into the lives of this family whose members are all hungry to win the next Toto draw. They include a nightclub hostess, a lesbian couple, a sweet girl-next-door daughter (whose occupation is unclear) and a hot-headed son played by Edmund Chen who strangely gets into a tranche-like state at times. Putting them all together almost feels like being in Haw Par Villa where larger-than-life characters co-exist in a theatrical kind of orgy.

In their idiosyncratic ways, they compete to get the clues of the winning 4D numbers and hinge on the ominosity of the young boy who enters this web of rivalries, to get closer to the winning combination. Structurally, it actually resembles family murder mysteries, often in an English setting, where a wide-eyed innocent stranger enters a household of oddly-behaving characters and emerges triumphant in getting what everybody craves for. (Interestingly, our wide-eyed stranger-hero is a foreigner, wonder if that was a socially-conscious casting choice?) Unlike the suspense of watching the traditional English murder mysteries, the characters here are not fleshed out enough beyond their rather skittish and exaggerated behaviours. Often, they also converge too easily and pick up each other’s mannerisms, to the point that all you remember is the protagonist against all the rest, denying it of a depth, more thoughtful characterization could bring. In fact, simpler, mundane but real characters would have been easier on the senses.

A major pivotal point of the movie was the all-important dream the boy made at the Bukit Brown which dropped clues of the winning 4D numbers. It was also the plot’s saving grace for it was a clear set-up and like any real Toto draw, it keeps the audience guessing the final number. In this respect, Dom evokes a blend of supernatural mystery, fear, suspense and anticipation. In order words, it gives you a reason to watch till the end. If you noticed it, it also causes the audience to suspend disbelief at several points of incredulity, chiefly, bumping into the Fengshui master everywhere. 

Red Numbers reflects a fearlessness in the direction of first-timer Dominic – one that unabashedly and seemingly borrows from a Mediacorp TV diet, one that does not try to be too pretentious and confident enough in letting the veteran actors do what they do best. This can’t be a bad thing for despite the clumsy interplay of characters, the film sticks to getting to the end of the story and offering the satisfaction of knowing the final winning number. Also, some thoughtful editing helped put the full stop where the pandemonium got beyond control and all that Fengshui smoke choked up our vision on the narrative. For instance, to pull the plug on sometimes pointless banters between the rivalrous siblings and to cut off intermediate action where we know what new clues will lead the character to do.

Ultimately, did Red Numbers seal its own fate on the scripting table, at the shooting set or in the editing room? I think it sealed its fate with a director who undeniably displays some clumsiness in his craft but at the very least, knows what his own favourite (but always winning) combination is and pushes through with it. 

Review by Jeremy Sing

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