SGIFF Opening Film Review: Unlucky Plaza by Ken Kwek

Last night, the Singapore International Film Festival opened with two sold-out screenings of Ken Kwek’s debut feature Unlucky Plaza, a movie that sticks a cherry bomb in any notion that our fledgling Singaporean cinematic landscape has remained flatly one-note. Last year, Anthony Chen’s debut feature Ilo Ilo announced his deft hand at the patient humanism and meticulous detail of an Edward Yang or Ang Lee. With Unlucky Plaza, Kwek unveils his wholly different aspirations toward the dynamic frames, pop stylings, overlapping timelines, allusive pastiche, tense standoffs and irreverent humour of a Quentin Tarantino.

Of course, Kwek has yet to attain a level of cinematic mastery that compares to Tarantino’s early works, or to the other classic movies from which Unlucky Plaza derives its scenarios. Nonetheless, Kwek’s fits of amateurishness in this film are matched by an ambitiousness and vigour that deserves praise, and that bodes well for his filmography to come.

Characters in Trouble
Unlucky Plaza gains its name not only from Lucky Plaza, the shopping mall in which its protagonist Onassis (Epy Quizon) runs a failing restaurant, but also from its converging cast of characters in trouble. These troubles culminate in the extended hostage situation that we glimpse in the movie’s opening minutes, and we are in for some real fireworks when we finally reach that point.

Too bad that it takes us a while to get there. For a good hour or so, the movie bogs itself down in a clumsy setup that is peppered with badly written exposition, including such choice dialogue as “It’s been five months since you lost the baby.” Thank goodness Kwek has a gift for editing and camera movement that keeps things lively even as he belabours the backstory, such as when he cedes to Onassis an overlong but wittily filmed monologue for a meat cleaver.

The movie’s protracted first half is salvaged mainly by the character of adulterous pastor Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki), who is divided constantly between his lust and guilt, and between his meekness and attempts at self-assertion. These contradictions in Tong Wen’s character elevate two of his scenes as standouts in this movie’s first half. (By coincidence or design, both scenes are filmed from outside the same car, looking in.) In the first scene, Tong Wen stammers his way through an attempt to end his affair with a married woman. In the second, he tries to appease a swindled Onassis. In both cases, Mardjuki proves to be a formidable comic wizard, playing up the misplaced formalities in Tong Wen’s panicked apologies. Likewise, Kwek shows a remarkable patience in these scenes, rooting his camera in place to mine the comedy from his characters momentarily leaving the frame.

But Unlucky Plaza offers its juiciest moments when Kwek finally shoves his characters up against each other. The movie’s pivotal sequence revolves around a hilarious clusterf*** as each character’s storylines leads them to the same house on 97 Stevens Rd. However, audiences must prepare themselves for the sequence’s dark humour, for our ability to laugh at its absurd pile-up of events, or the sequence falls flat.

If only Kwek could sustain the energy of this centerpiece throughout the rest of the movie—but how could he? Tarantino knows in Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown to wrap up quickly after such a doozy. By contrast, Kwek further tries his hand at the hostage drama of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, but he doesn’t yet have Lumet’s iron-grip discipline in keeping entirely to his hostage-taker’s headspace, in wresting the humanity out of his characters, and in milking the politics of such a situation without overextending himself.

Many of these criticisms can sound like reasons not to savour Unlucky Plaza. It scuttles its Fargo-inspired claims to being “based on true events” by uneven tonal shifts, an unrealistic ending, and a meta-framing device that is too clever by half. It drops its focus on its most compelling characters, and fails to develop others. It derives itself from better movies, but the derivativeness does not always flatter. (Things like these make a viewer appreciate even more Anthony Chen’s economical but watertight construction of Ilo Ilo.)

But name me another Singaporean movie that wears its ambitions on its sleeve, that even bothers reaching out for the grab-bag of cinematic pleasures that Unlucky Plaza strives for. Or name me another mainstream thriller in recent years that even attempts the tonal precision that dark humour demands. In these ways, Unlucky Plaza expands our conceptions of what our local cinema can venture, and even achieve. It’s worth the trouble.

(Review by Colin Low)
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