Review: Nobody (2019)

It really takes a lot to scare people these days. After all, reality is stranger than fiction now. For reference, just turn on the news. In Nobody, Eric Khoo’s installment to the HBO Folklore series that was curated as part of the Asian Film Archive’s ‘Fear of Monsters’ screening series, the trope of modern day slavery in Singapore ringed louder than the screeching of its pontianak character. Humans are portrayed to be more frightening than ghosts and rightfully so. 

Nobody tells the story of a Chinese construction worker who, ignorant of Malay superstitions, removed a nail from the neck of a corpse discovered at the work site, which he was tasked to dispose. Folklore plot component: the nail on the neck is believed to prevent the spirit of the female deceased will return to haunt humans as a pontianak. Largely a kamic tale, the film begins with despotic employers and wardens going about with their bullying and offers payoffs in the form of their gory demise towards the end. The pontianak in this film knows the right people to kill. So in fact, we sit alongside the devil in this one and cheer on when the bad guys get their comeuppance. But inadvertently, the film’s spook factor is sacrificed. 

On closer look, the film seems to not take itself too seriously in certain aspects. The opening scene of the young towkay giving his warden a verbal shelling, who in turn relays the anger to Siva, the construction worker, is nothing short of a caricature. Strokes of Phua Chu Kang (famous Singapore TV contractor character) in the styling of the towkay and even the warden (tight hair curls, signature Versace prints) are evident. Is this pandering to a TV audience since its HBO, or was it a wardrobe malfunction? The film could also have worked harder in the special effects department. At times, the appearance of the pontianak seemed nondescript - the camera would pan and suddenly out of a corner crawls the harmless-looking child monster without much ‘fanfare’. Also, most would have been ‘delighted’ at a more graphic killing of the towkay in his bathtub. Perhaps the most chilling moment of the entire film was when the Chinese workers yanked the 6-8 inch long nail out of the corpse’ neck. 

Nobody is what Chris Yeo’s award-winning A Land Imagined would have been if the audience could choose its ending. Justice is served to bullies and tormentors in the context of the supernatural, an outcome that is sadly, closer to fiction than reality in Singapore. Perhaps, it is the curse of TV, where there is a need to conclude if it pays to be a good or bad guy, which evidently informs much of the direction and characterisation. Where the film does redeem itself is in creating characters that are easy to access and care about (and construction workers are certainly the flavour of the period!), a major distraction from the fact that the scares in Nobody were literally child’s play.

Review by Jeremy Sing
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