Production Talk with Ken Kwek on 'Unlucky Plaza'

Ken Kwek's second feature film 'Unlucky Plaza' first made its appearance as the opening film of the 25th Singapore International Film Festival last year. It is back for a commercial run in cinemas come 16 April. This is a film that has garnered a lot of attention for its bold and daring treatment. John Lui from The Straits Times says 'We've never seen a Singapore film like this'. The Toronto International Film Festival calls this a 'nail-biting, multi-character thriller from one of Asia's most exciting filmmakers'. SINdie has a review of the film here.

Film Synopsis

Sh*t Hits The Fan In The World’s Safest City

When a chance to save his ailing diner goes belly up, Onassis Hernandez, an √©migr√© and single father, is pushed over the edge. Onassis takes a property guru and his wife hostage in their designer bungalow and a standoff with the police ensues. The crisis, captured on Youtube, sparks a media circus and riots in the world’s safest city. As more lives are threatened, an increasingly desperate Onassis forces the situation to a violent, heart stopping conclusion.

“A nail-biting comedy thriller from one of Asia's most exciting new directors” (Toronto International Film Festival), UNLUCKY PLAZA is Ken Kwek’s debut feature and stars Adrian Pang, Judee Tan, Guo Liang and acclaimed Filipino actor Epy Quizon as the beleaguered Onassis.
We catch up with director Ken Kwek to find out more behind the scenes in our Production Talk interview on 'Unlucky Plaza'.

Unlucky Plaza says a lot of about the current social fabric of Singapore, what made you approach this subject matter in the way that you did with Unlucky Plaza, an ambitious and dramatic storyline?
I returned to Singapore in late 2005 after spending several years in the UK. I got a job as a newspaper reporter here, my first real job. It was the best way to be re-introduced to the city of my birth, writing stories about our politics, the way people live, the radical social changes taking place at the end of the LKY era. UNLUCKY PLAZA is a dramatization those social changes, using a hostage crisis to explore the tensions between classes and the great cult and culture of money.
After you got the story, what shaped the film majorly as the journey of making it began - the actors? the location? cinematic/directorial influences?
The actors – for me it always begins with the actors. I wanted time to cast, to develop a rapport with the chosen actors, to workshop and improvise scenes with them. Locations are, of course, important, as are the key creatives you pick like your composer, cinematographer etc. But if you ask me what’s the biggest and most consistent element that influenced the way UNLUCKY PLAZA was constructed, it was the acting and how the actors played out their scenes.

How long did you take to develop the script? What were the challenges you faced in developing the script?
The script took about a year to develop and right up to the first day of principal photography I was refining the scenes on the page. UNLUCKY PLAZA was a joy to write and the real challenge lay in convincing investors that I’d be able to deliver as a director what looked promising on paper.

There is definitely a style of comedy in your direction that is very daring. Tell us about your directorial style in this film and how it departs from Sex.Violence.Family Values.
Sex.Violence.FamilyValues was a satire, an attack on social prejudices and puritanical values. The comedy in UNLUCKY PLAZA is used not to lampoon the characters, but to evoke empathy for their bad judgment. Their weaknesses are ours, too.

What were the biggest challenges you faced during the production?
There was a scene where we were shooting a public demonstration involving some 100 extras. The police, acting on a tip that there was a big, rowdy protest in Siglap, came and interrupted our shoot. The press came too. There was a stressful delay, and I was worried that the production would be shut down. Fortunately, I think everyone realised it was a big misunderstanding and we resumed filming after a couple of hours.
How was the financing stage of this film like? Did the ban on your earlier film influence the financing process?
I don’t think the ban on SVFV affected the fund-raising for UNLUCKY PLAZA in a bad way. If anything, a couple of investors were drawn to the project because they liked SVFV enough to consider a stake in my first feature.

If there was a significantly bigger budget, how differently would you have made the film?
I wouldn’t. I’d take the extra money and make another two films.

How differently did audiences overseas react to the film compared to Singapore (I know you only had one screening in sg)?
The audience in Toronto was fantastic and I think they enjoyed the dramatic elements of the story. Warsaw enjoyed the film’s dark humour. And Singapore audiences are quite naturally more interested in the social themes.

What's the best compliment and the worst remark you heard about 'Unlucky Plaza' and why?
I’m not shirking the question, just adhering to a personal code that you can’t spend too much time thinking about what others like or don’t like about your work. You can’t please everyone, and sometimes negative remarks tell you more about the critic than about the film. I’m glad at least that people aren’t indifferent about it.

You can find out more about Unlucky Plaza in the following links:

Here is a visual look behind the scenes in this 'making-of' video. Enjoy!
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