Re: "Big winner Ilo Ilo unlikely to score big at home"

Note: An article entitled "Big winner Ilo Ilo unlikely to score at home" was published in the 2 June edition of The Sunday Times, under the Sunday Life! section. It was written by John Lui, the resident film critic for The Straits Times, and the article was tucked under a 2 page feature which covered the production and reception of the film. 

Raymond: Before I start, let me say that I consider John Lui to be a very conscientious film journalist who has done good work for The Straits Times, and having seen him around at certain film events, believe him to be a genuinely nice guy.  Now, with this out of the way, I'm going to dive straight down into his piece, which, if my fears turn out to be true, is potentially harmful. When I first saw the headline of the piece, I thought, Oh no! An article telling us what is already self-evident here: that local independent films are destined for the box office gallows! But I decided to rein back my cynicism for a moment, because the other feature article looming over John Lui's was largely positive and celebratory in spirit. Lui, early in the article, also says: 

"Chen is every bit the local hero and deserves to be celebrated for scoring a bull's eye with his first feature film.

The proper movie-like coda to this Cinderella story would be a triumphant homecoming, topped off by thousands of Singaporeans clamouring for cinema tickets."
It's great that Mr Lui starts off by stating his stance clearly, that he's glad about Anthony Chen's Camera d'Or win, and that he believes the film deserves a warm reception from Singaporeans. Fair enough. He also astutely notes that the film is an accessible drama - most of Anthony Chen's films are, but I won't be surprised if some film journalists play up the "indie-ness"  of Ilo Ilo and downplay its accessibility - and that it will probably enjoy modest distribution. True enough, Golden Village Pictures has already picked this film up, as has many other overseas distribution companies.

But then Lui goes on to talk about festival bias, about how film festival juries gravitate towards the grimmer topics, and expounds on what they expect from European and non-European films, and that's when the entire article lost me. By the end, even though he closes off his article by insisting that a good box-office reception for the film might mean that we are inching towards cultural maturity, the article already failed in what it set out to do. We'll enumerate all its glaring problems here, so Colin, why don't you get the ball rolling.

Colin: The greatest disappointment with Lui's article is that he could have so much more profitably encouraged audiences to take a risk. The Straits Times still has a sizable local readership that reaches precisely those audiences whom he suggests might not take to the festival-circuit film. But historically, such audiences rely on newspaper reviews to evaluate if they will go see such a film!

Instead, he opts for a doomsaying article with a headline that goes "unlikely to score at home," which could well result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a wimpy, moldy-bread prognostication of "what audiences will pay for," which ignores how much the unprecedented Caméra d'Or award throws off any estimation of audience interest based on how past local arthouse films have fared.

Plus, "what audiences will pay for" is a wholly different question from "what audiences will like." Lui claims that local mainstream audiences are unlikely to be drawn to "dark, serious topics," but has he seen how grim the most popular Channel 8 dramas can get? Not to mention that Anthony Chen's dramaturgy tends to be quite accessible, unlike that of many festival-acclaimed local filmmakers before him. Indeed, the 15-minute standing ovation it received at Cannes suggests a crowd-pleaser, especially since festival crowds' penchant for "dark, serious topics" doesn’t mean that they like films that are drearily, repetitively so.

I'm highly excited for Ilo Ilo. Its historic win aside, the trailer makes this look like the first local film I've seen that humanizes the foreign worker, but not at the expense of dehumanizing their employer(s). And it doesn't look like it equates humanity with "having no flaws," either. Hopefully, when the film rolls around into local cinemas, The Straits Times reporters will know better how to wield their influence productively.

Raymond: I couldn't have said it any better myself, Colin. I don't think Lui means any malice - he clearly is cheering for the movie (or at least claimed to be) and wants it to do well - but the article itself seems pointless to me. It rehashes some very obvious points about the themes that different movie-going demographics are inclined towards - points that are entirely familiar to people with even just a smattering of knowledge about the movie-going tastes of the masses. And those points are in service of what, exactly? An article that (unwittingly, I hope) prophesies the commercial failure of the film?

Sure, I don't think Lui intended the article to do that. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt, at least when it comes to journalistic intent; I suppose he wrote that article as a cautionary message against the (imaginary?) complacency that comes with critical plaudits, a call-to-arms to the sophisticates who read The Sunday Life! to rally behind a homegrown talent's modest film. But as you mentioned Colin, Mr Lui didn't even try to entice readers to watch the movie, at least not in any productive way. The lede of the article - that the film deserves to do well here, and that Chen should be treated as a local hero - read as less a dedicated pitch to sell the movie, than an ass-covering caveat (read: excuse to write nonsense).
Of course, journalists have no obligation to sell a movie - that's the province of marketing departments at distribution companies. (Intellectual honesty is what's integral to any piece of journalism, after all.) But back to the point about the article's purpose: what was Lui trying to do? Was he subtly coaxing people to watch the movie by making the article about the broader issue of artistic tastes? It's awfully frustrating that, having read the piece multiple times now, poor me still has no idea what he was trying to accomplish. Good intentions or no, the write-up ultimately failed to challenge readers to go beyond their comfort zones and seek out new, different movies. Really, the article just seems like knee-jerk reactionary babbling. I know Ilo Ilo has been showered with praise since its much publicized Cannes debut and win, and all the love can get boring after a while, but I would suggest to media journalists out there that should they have nothing productive or smartly contrarian to add to the conversation, the best course of action would just be to remain silent.
One more thing, because I need to get this out there: lamenting the cultural tastes of movie-goers befits the blog of a marginalized  old sophisticate, not a platform as large as The Sunday Times. It's easy to whine about how good movies fall by the wayside, unnoticed by most people, and consigned to poor timings by cineplex schedulers, but that's precisely why we need film reviewers/journalists!  They're there to do their utmost so as to draw people to good movies! With this article, Lui seems to be throwing up his hands and saying, That's it folks! The ball's in your court! I give up! Which is partly true, yes. The final decision to pay for a movie ticket obviously rests with a consumer, but that's why it's imperative, all the more, NOT to succumb to critical fatigue and to continue championing worthy films. Lui's closing lines read as less a clarion call than a bitter chastisement. His attitude also flies in the face of everything that SINdie stands for. Here we are, a team of mostly unpaid non-(or semi-)professionals, fighting tooth and nail for the past 6 years on our modest blog to play the part of good messengers, and now we have a seasoned journalist basically saying "screw that".

Colin: We've outlined the reasons why Lui's article is frustrating, yes, but I don't want to end by bashing Lui or the Sunday Times any more than what they've needlessly done to Ilo Ilo. The tone I'm taking towards them is less angry and more baffled/dismayed, and I'm (naïvely?) optimistic that they'll paint Ilo Ilo in a better light when it actually arrives in local theatres. It's just that you're right: within the local film ecosystem, I believe that critical writing plays a crucial role in shaping and archiving how we think about the contribution of each film. It's a reminder of our belief in the medium and what it can do to us.

Ilo Ilo is slated for an August release in Singapore.

Text by Colin Low and Raymond Tan
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