Review: God or Dog (1997)

Religion can be sticky and it is still one of those topics we do not talk about much in 2019. Let's not even talk about wanting to become a God and then believing it to be true. So imagine what a racket it must have been for Director Hugo Ng to release this film back in 1997 to address cultish behaviours and the darker side of human nature.

Inspired by the 1981 Adrian Lim murders which shocked Singapore, God or Dog addresses the issue of charismatic leaders who misguide others to gain money, sex and material comforts. Due to the realistic nature of how the film depicts the 1981 incident, casting proved difficult. In the end, Ng found himself writing, directing and acting in this 86 minute film.

The viewers follow the lead Sin, modelled after Lim, as he went from vulnerable to 'God'. That sense of vulnerability was shown through the plain three-room flat Sin lived in with his wife and young son. His mind stifled by drones of the standing fan, his son repetitively disrupting the pet gold fish and his wife going about daily house chores. It was that drudgery of the every day, and the underlying desire to get out of this situation.

However, things started to change when Sin went under the wing of a questionable faith healer and master who took advantage of others to get whatever he wanted. Looking past his master's tricks, he ousted and took over the practice. He began building his own empire once his own family was out of the picture - first it was just lovers, then money and this dark road eventually led him down the road of murder.

Although the acting and the effects used were nothing to rave about, the storyline itself kept the action going and was the most intriguing. I enjoyed the use of varying languages that slip in and out of dialogues. The mixed use of Hokkien, Cantonese, English and Mandarin kept that authenticity for me and brought me back to that time where English was not the only language one could be educated in. They immediately brought my mind back to a different era and phase of Singapore's history.

It was also a great choice to have a leading character such as Sin, for he was the most curious and strange compared to the ordinariness of everything else. Ng portrayed him to be empty and on the verge of losing his mind at the beginning, before bringing his character to such heights of greed, craze and grandeur.

Being vulnerable himself to being the one manipulating others who were like him, Sin went through a gradual transformation in his beliefs and the ways he carried himself. It was an interesting dynamic to observe - the gaining of power and eventual downfall. I guess I could say that it was the delusion that brought about the horror of it all. So many questions crossed my mind as I sat in my seat, taking the film in scene by scene.

How could this man believe that he is God? Where was the remorse or the regret? Was he pretending or did he truly believe in his supposed holy powers?

Though he was the driving force of such audacity, I could not help but feel sympathy for Sin. With the film portraying his beginnings and to follow through this journey of psychological transformation and manipulation, I could not help but acknowledge that perhaps this was a monster born out of circumstances and desperation.

And that was the true horror of it all, that I did not see a monster on screen but a man simply crying out for help.

God or Dog was given a recent rare screening at the Asian Film Archive's (AFA) Oldham Theatre as part of the AFA's 'A Fear of Monsters' screening series.

Review by Dawn Teo

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