Review: Sex. Violence. FamilyValues

I like the sound of the title of the film I’m about to watch. Perhaps it wasn’t the intention of writer-director Ken Kwek to philosophise much with a title that’s so in-your-face and to-the-point about its main themes, but because the term “family values” come after “sex” and “violence,” a kind of democracy sets in, cheekily and unabashedly suggesting that it, too, is perhaps a concept as abrasive as the former two.

It is this dark humour and wicked audacity that SVFV is built upon, starting from the very first vignette entitled “Cartoons.” Shot in a moving car, the opening scene shows a mother driving her son to his kindergarten. Yet, in a sort of polar opposite to Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), the one-sided communication between introverted Oliver and his worried mother (Serene Chen) is markedly strained and tense. The mysterious tone of the subsequent scenes suggesting something is strangely amiss consistently and effectively makes the audience want to know more, and culminates in a wicked twist at the very last minute that is delivered with perfect comic timing.

“Cartoons,” which is promising, but really an apéritif, segues into vignette #2, “Porn Masala,” where I encounter what has made SVFV such a scandalous film: the racist jokes (and we’re talking Racist, with a capital “R”). The interaction between amateur porn-actor Vivian (Vadi PVSS) and a sleazy director (Adrian Pang) is full of fireworks and truly forms the highlight of SVFV. Are the jokes crude? Sure, but not more so than in real life, and only more than one can expect of your average Singaporean film. Sometimes, it takes the coarsest joke to sieve out the finer subtleties of human nature and society, and the jokes in SVFV are often intelligent in that vein, showing that when it comes to racist jokes, it is often the wrong racist jokes that are doubly racist.

Audiences will also find to their delight that the racist humour is a lot more laugh-out-loud than awkward; not so much the type of jokes that make you side-eye your fellow movie-goer or shift uneasily in your seat. A lot has to do with the director’s understanding of the formula that shameless slapstick is best pursued all the way, and in a role that’s perfectly-cast for him, Adrian’s boisterous and callous character carries the airs and personality loud and huge enough to match the audacity of the jokes. The excellent, genuinely hilarious, no-holds-barred script is held up marvelously by the veteran actor. 

No one is genuinely insulting anyone here, because the one spewing the slurs (the douchebag director) is himself caricatured. For the uninformed: that’s satire. It’s also important to note that Vivian’s fish-out-of-the-water situation specifically dictates that he is the guy the audience should root for. Therefore, MDA’s concerns that we would laugh with and not at the obnoxious director who pokes fun at Vivian is a concern grossly misplaced. It's embarrassing that I even have to explain this. Fortunately, and in some ways, the layer of music dubbed over much of the dialogue between Adrian and Vadi to placate the censors adds to the humor of the scenes.

With all the fast-paced wit in “Porn Masala” drumming up expectations for more, the momentum sags a little and becomes strangely subdued in the third—and longest—vignette, “The Bouncer.” In the concluding piece, a teenage girl (Sylvia Ratonel) of mixed parentage comes to terms with pursuing her pole-dancing hobby, much to the chagrin of her father (Osman Sulaiman). Here is where things get a little bland and predictable, with plenty of your typical father-daughter dynamics in the fray.

The characters in this story are rather flat and sketchy. Nothing can be more stereotypical than a rebellious daughter with a wild streak who is unable to pursue her dreams. We’re never really clear if her inexplicable love for pole-dancing is also done out of a love of dance or the adoration of a crowd, or some strange fantasy, so it feels that her character is overly and purely set up to lead into a confrontation with a conservative dad. Throw in sickly mom (played by an under-used and awkwardly-cast Tan Kheng Hua, who would have shone in a comedic role) for the guilt factor, and the preachy package is complete.

The provocative pole-dancing scenes, which further spike the scandal meter of the film, are lusciously shot, in all sense of the word. These extended scenes, in which the audience is lulled by the pulsating lights of the dance floor and the slick moves of the gyrating bodies onscreen, become not-too-subtle reminders that the film is, after all, an endeavor sponsored by a popular club.

Overall, however, with plenty of good acting and a witty and often-intelligent script, SVFV is a glorious 50 minutes for Singaporeans of all walks of life to watch and loosen up. But do catch it soon, as Cathay will only run the film in theatres for as long as there is strong demand. From the looks of a series of sold-out screenings, SVFV is slowly claiming a watershed victory for the local film industry.

Yet, one wonders, would the film have passed the censors had it not been for much petitioning and foreign critical acclaim? The journey of this little film that could holds many lessons, and we can only hope that the parties involved in the saga are now wiser with the knowledge that thought-provoking art often merits consumption with a pinch of salt, and that the sophistication of local movie-going audiences should never be underestimated. After all, it takes a truly cohesive society to be able to laugh at its differences. What messages do we send out, when we’re so afraid of these to show? Local audiences are slowly beginning to discern the greater insult.

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