Review: Medium Rare (1991)

The Toa Payoh ritual murders had been a harrowing episode in the history of Singapore.

That year, when news broke that a nine-year-old girl’s naked and assaulted body had been found at a lift landing, parents everywhere were seized by indomitable panic. Fears intensified with the discovery of another body two weeks later, this time a 10-year-old boy. The thought of an unseen serial child murderer lurking dark corners in the country was so horrifying, it left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness of those who were caring for young ones at the time.

In a bizarre twist, it was later revealed that the children whose lives had been snuffed out too early were only the epilogue to what was a most gripping backstory. Adrian Lim, charlatan medium and sex-obsessed conman mastermind, had been accused of rape by one of his former clients/victims/“holy” wives. (The slashes are bounteous because Lim himself was never one to respect boundaries; he’d used his spiritual “practice” to trick women into sleeping with him.) Furious at how the police failed to recognise that he had been “framed”, he convened a meeting with his two “holy” wives (the quotation marks seem to be copious too huh) and there, it was decided: children were to be offered as a sacrifice to Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, creation and destruction, to liberate Lim from his shackles of maligned wrongdoing.

Not only is the irony spectacularly unmissable, I also cannot describe the relationship between Lim and the two women who helped prop up his sham of a business without opening seven more cans of worms. Let it simply be known that the case was so sensational, it continued to receive media coverage and send shivers down people’s spines for years afterwards.

Because it’s always tempting to want to reimagine the most enthralling stories we know onscreen, it’s no surprise that this particular story generated plenty of adaptation interest amongst filmmakers. One such attempt, Medium Rare (1991), was recently screened at the Asian Film Archive’s State of Motion 2019: A Fear of Monsters film programme. I went in without preexisting expectations – no, scratch that. I went in having done my research on the film’s critical reception (poor) and loosened my expectations for it (extremely low), but still the only thing the film accomplished was living up to its half-baked reputation.

They often say that truth is stranger than fiction. In the case of Medium Rare, it is simply that the truth was far more coherent than its fictional counterpart. The film begins with a young Australian (photo)journalist, Beverly Watson, clearly fascinated with the idea of spiritual mediums in Singapore. Snap, snap, snap. She’s here, we later learn, to break a story about the mystic underbelly of our cosmopolitan island city-state. Well, here’s the real scoop for ya Miss Watson: cities are complex ethnological and geographical spaces that can encompass a great many dimensions. It would be sorely remiss if a place – howsoever defined – were to be strictly what it marketed itself to be. Is Sydney just its Opera House? Or Gold Coast Sea World? In fact, doesn’t it sound extremely nonsensical now that I’ve mapped it back onto your country for you? Cha-ching.

This is not a critique of Australians, in case you missed the point. It is a critique of how feeble the quality of writing, character development and overall story is in Medium Rare.

The film completely misses the point of what made the trial so gripping in its time; in fact, it is at best just a C-grade imitation of actual events. It does not stop to interrogate intention or relationships, content simply to thrive off the Orientalist exoticisation of everything that can be dog-eared as aspects of the Singaporean identity. For instance, Adrian Lim’s acts made people’s skin crawl because of how they had all been committed in his house, a run-of-the-mill HDB flat. HDB flats are synecdochal of what we configure as home here in Singapore; that its banality can be so compromised is what hikes his crimes up a notch on the creepy barometer.

But in Medium Rare, Daniel Lee’s crimes are all couched in a kind of semi-literal whitewashed prestige: a two-storey colonial-style bungalow, a lushly carpeted stairway and walls so pristine they could give Santorini’s blue domed churches a run for their money. The writers even took the liberty to name his not-so-humble abode an ashram. Last I heard, not a single Singaporean has misappropriated Indian cultural nomenclature for their homes.

The shock value generated by Adrian Lim's story lies in the savage incongruity between what he seemed to be and what he really was. The average Singaporean is our next-door neighbour, Chinese, male, cut stockily – boxes that he checks. The average Singaporean is, however, not a child murderer with a phony job and two women to exploit for sexual degeneracy, all of which are boxes Adrian Lim also checks. By completely eliminating the aberration that is at the heart of this case and, instead, elevating Lee to that of a god-like status whose “abilities” the film sometimes appears to legitimise for no good reason at all, Medium Rare instantly becomes burlesque.

I digress. Let me return to the plot.

As you can infer by now, Watson is the device through which we navigate the film – well, at first anyway. As soon as we meet Lee, a vague Pan-Asian reincarnation of Adrian Lim, the camera is happy to dispense with Watson’s existence. Then, not unlike our closest hare-brained friend who cannot recount a funny anecdote without straying into tangential asides, the camera enters this incomprehensible trance in which it wildly ricochets amongst characters and settings. It just can’t quite decide where to be or what to show us.

Just think about it. Three times we are invited to watch an insipid verbal tug-of-war play out between Watson, who desperately wants to break the story she is spinning in her head, and her editor, who wants to put her on the next flight to Beijing. But not once does the film think it their responsibility to tell us what the relationship between Yoke Lin and Lee is – and I don’t just mean that I can’t tell if Yoke Lin, last name unknown, should have complained to the Ministry of Manpower for her unpaid ashram receptionist work in exchange for being a live-in, uh, partner. I mean, how did they meet? Why her subservience to Lee despite his prevailing disinterest in her other than when she’s prostrate on his bed? (No, you don’t get it: he literally doesn’t talk to her.) How are they even related at all?

As the film progresses, the questions gradually snowball in quantity and intensity and eventually someone in the theatre will bark out in laughter. Take note of when this happens, fellas. This is the point at which the illusion crumbles and Medium Rare's ridiculous storyline can no longer be tolerated with anything other than jest.

I could go on to pan its careless mishandling of women and issues of abusive relationships; its transparent, targeted marketing of Singapore (that would put Crazy Rich Asians to shame); its flagrant transgressions of journalistic integrity; the vacant acting and clumsy editing; and above all, the corruption of what could have been an excellent story to retell if only the writers had not been so caught up with inserting their own fantasies into the film. I honestly could. But as I left the theatre, rather than being boiled over with incredulity at the dishonest reinterpretation, I was far more overcome with piteousness at how much of its own potential Medium Rare had cannibalised.

Today, Medium Rare is mostly remembered for its revival of the local film industry. I’d wager that it wasn’t so much economic as it was aesthetic, as in: “Anyone could make a better movie than that!” Regardless, it awakened an industry that had gone somewhat quiet since the 1970s and marked a turnaround in Singaporean cinema.

Yet, the fact that that's all we can give Medium Rare credit for is a terrible shame. There were moments when, watching the film, you catch glimpses of how it could have been so much more. It delivered some really enrapturing shots and could have become a gorgeous time capsule of Singapore in the nineties, the way Royston Tan’s 15 is now canonical for the teenage mafia era of our country. It could have been pioneering in ways that do not reduce its significance to that of what it did, rather than what it was. It could have recreated atmosphere, addressed complexity, explored perspective, questioned audiences, imagined better and risen above itself. It could have been all of those and more, and I wanted so much to give this 28-year-old film an opportunity to prove itself to someone who does not even have firsthand experience of the original Toa Payoh ritual murders.

Well, too bad all Medium Rare did was simply leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Review by Eisabess Chee

Eisabess is based in Singapore but her heart is always already in another universe, preferably fictional. Will write for films and food.

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