(2nd) Review: Judgment Day

The end of the world was a subject of much fear and rumination last year, no thanks to the prophecies of an ancient race. Silly as the claims of impending Armageddon were (North Korea had not yet gone all nuclear-ragey at that time), some people nonetheless harbored paranoid thoughts. But what's new? The possibility of humanity's demise has always been a constant source of terror, and apocalyptic fantasies has consequently been a go-to source of artistic inspiration since time immemorial.

Armageddon is also at the heart of Judgment Day's conceit. Announced in one of the film's opening scenes (if not right at the start, from its title), characters are made aware that they have seventy-two hours - 3 days - to live before a meteor will obliterate all life on earth. The film subsequently chronicles four different stories of people trying to live out their last days gracefully, if not honestly: Jian Guo (Tender Huang), a seeming unaccomplished man, who sleeps with a prostitute, Xia Lu (Julie Tan) in order to get back at his girlfriend Shu Zhen(Alice Ko), who has decided to dump him for her boss; Fu An (Henry Thia), a married man with children who chooses to undergo a sex-change operation to live out his last hours as a woman; a young, ostensibly well-to-do couple, Richard (Chua En Lai) and Rebecca (Rebecca Lim) who breaks up over ideological differences but who reconciles at the end; a cop (Wang Yuqing) who confesses to his buddy (Mark Lee) that he took a bribe years ago, probably to purge himself of guilt before the end of days. (There's also a rather superfluous segment involving a scam Taoist priest.)

Not too far into the movie, the doomsday proclamations turn out to be false; scientists have miscalculated the impact of the meteor, and the meteor disintegrates mid-air instead of striking earth's surface. But is all well? Some of the characters here have made irrevocable choices. Their attempts to live out their assumed final days with dignity and honesty of course turn sour, since the projection of apocalypse has been revealed to be a false alarm. Post-faux-apocalypse, messiness and conflict ensue, and these characters journey through lots of tears to earn reconciliation and forgiveness.

As always, with these sort of ensemble dramas, each individual story is stretched thin due to tight screen-time. Judgment Day is much like your Love Actually-s and Valentine's Day-s: it has an interesting spread of characters, but never the chance to fully flesh out those characters. But while those earnest and modest films had a unifying theme - love - to tie up the lose ends, Judgment Day's stories feel strangely disjointed and tonally uneven.

On the surface, there are some hints of resonance to modern-day life. There's Jian Guo's and Shu Zhen's tangled love-quandrangle, a portrait of a middle-aged couple's love for each other waning and subsequently being rekindled; there's Richard's and Rebecca's breakup out of ideological differences, a vague attempt at showing the tension between idealism and pragmatism in young people; and there's the slyly progressive story of Fu An's coming out process and her struggle for love and acceptance.

I'm thankful for director Ong Kuo Sin's guts in straying off the well-beaten path of the family drama/slapstick comedy hybrid that form the bulk of local features, and Judgment Day's existence in itself is a miracle. But the conceit that made Judgment Day look unique, or at least interesting, is also responsible for the film's lack of steam in its second half. After the revelation midway through that the apocalypse is but a miscalculation, the film loses its rudder and seems to go nowhere. What makes Armageddon-themed movies so interesting is its unrelenting gaze at The End, to see how doomed characters work through their neuroses with the clock ticking away, or to at least discern what they discover about themselves even when they fight tooth-and-nail to save the day. But Judgment Day's conceit feels nothing more than an accessory, a mechanism to kick-start the dramatic momentum; the impending Armageddon forces the film's characters to make brash decisions, only to have the film abandon its gimmick soon after. In other words, the whole soon-to-be apocalypse is just a fancy way to set up the movie, but never anything of real significance.

Perhaps it would be to unfair to fault a movie for using a gimmick to get the ball rolling. Judgment Day seems less concerned with seeing through cosmic annihilation -  the TV announcement that informs the public about the apocalypse seems deliberately shoddy - than with the impact that has on its characters. What's difficult for me to get past, though, is that when the film abandons its gimmick, the real drama ends. These characters already know what they want even before the meteor's collision is announced; news of the apocalypse merely jerks them out of passivity into action. Save for Jian Guo's story arc, there's no authentic sense of self-discovery for any of these characters, and moments of redemption or reconciliation are only ushered in by dei ex machina that take the form of lacklustre bromides (what Life! critic Boon Chan so succinctly calls the "Big Speech" moment). It's a woefully inept way to tie up loose ends, but it's also common for ensemble movies. In between, you're treated to picturesque but unnecessary TV-ad-worthy scenes, such as Richard and Rebecca traipsing slo-mo through a Cambodian grass field.

The movie provides its little joys. One of the film's characters, a single, poor, unaccomplished suicidal man who is repeatedly foiled at his attempts to take his life, provides a constant source of humour. Fu An's story arc, while somewhat haphazardly concluded, is a gesture towards inclusivity and progressiveness, even if details or the background behind her desire for a sex-change were never revealed. Chua Enlai proves to be a wonderfully nimble actor, navigating between a range of modes: sardonic humour, frustration, and earnestness. But what could have been a stark, unapologetic look at The End - and a clear-eyed treatise on how people struggle for dignity, grace, and integrity in light of that - turns out to be another reaffirmation and regurgitation of familiar, but simple-minded, love/family-wins-all "ideas"; even when the film's final twist arrives, its potential for real, profound humanism has been all but squandered.

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