STOP10 Jan 2017: 'Unlucky Plaza' by Ken Kwek

This January, pick up a copy of the DVD of Ken Kwek's Unlucky Plaza, a bold genre exercise of a kind rarely seen in local cinema. As I wrote in my original review of Unlucky Plaza, back when it opened the Singapore International Film Festival in late 2014:

Unlucky Plaza [...] 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.

The film is centred on Onassis Hernandez (Epy Quizon), a migrant business owner who is desperate to keep his failing restaurant in Lucky Plaza afloat. He soon finds himself pushed into holding a property guru (Adrian Pang) and his wife (Judee Tan) hostage in their bungalow, only to find the police closing in.

Read on to hear more from Unlucky Plaza director Ken Kwek, whom we interviewed about the film when it first opened in cinemas here:

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 dramatisation of 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 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.FamilyValues.
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 Sex.Violence.FamilyValues 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 Sex.Violence.FamilyValues 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, where you only had one screening?

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.

The DVD for Unlucky Plaza is now available for purchase at:

OBJECTIFS - Centre for Photography and Film
Books Kinokuniya, Takashimaya

Written by Colin Low

For the full list of January 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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