Seeing as how Singaporeans had reacted to a Filipino group's plans to celebrate Philippine Independence Day at Ngee Ann City last year, 'Unlucky Plaza' seems to have struck with eerie prescience at the extent of our xenophobia, especially as it attempts to portray the tension between locals and foreigners through the lens of a Filipino permanent resident in Singapore struggling to make ends meet. At the heart of writer-director Ken Kwek's darkly comic crime caper is Onassis Hernandez (Epy Quizon), a single father on the brink of financial ruin after the head cook at his restaurant in Lucky Plaza added 'shit' into the chicken adobo and landed six patrons in hospital with salmonella poisoning. As a result, Onassis is hounded by his unsympathetic lady landlord (Pam Oei) for the rent he owes and cannot even afford to ensure that his ten-year-old son Popoy (Christian Wong) has Fruit Loops for breakfast every morning. On the ostensible other end of the 'wealth' spectrum is smarmy property guru cum motivational speaker Sky (Adrian Pang), a former actor who went by the name of Terence Chia (yes, the similarity with real-life MediaCorp actor Terence Cao is intentional and duly noted) that now lives in a sprawling three-storey bungalow in Stevens Road and drives a Porsche. But, as we quickly learn, Sky is asset-rich and cash-poor, unable to pay off the $400,000 in debt he chalked up with a loan shark. That 'shark' has since been taken over by a PRC syndicate, whose Number 3 man named Xiao Xiong (Guo Liang), literally translated as 'Baby Bear', has come to collect. Completing the trio of narratives whose paths intersect midway into the story is Sky's unhappy wife Michelle (Judee Tan), who is constantly harangued by her husband to sell her parents' Tiong Bahru flat so that he can pay off his debt. For solace, she starts an affair with her Christian pastor Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki), whom she eventually plots to run away with to the island paradise of Gili Meno. Oh yes, Kwek certainly hasn't lost his edge for controversy, the former ST journalist turned scriptwriter of 'The Blue Mansion' who made his directorial debut in 2012 with the banned-then-unbanned- but-with- snips 'Sex.Violence.Family.Values' short and who is making his first feature-length film here. In the first hour, Kwek builds three interesting character studies around Onassis, Sky and Michelle, while serving up critique on some of the most prominent current social issues such as property scams, materialism, church improprieties and heightened nationalism. And to some extent, Kwek makes good on his own promise in the latter half of the film, where an intersecting chain of events over the course of a single day lead Onassis to hold Sky, Michelle, Tong Wen and Xiao Xiong hostage. Onassis' demands? To see his son and to have a helicopter ready so he can fly himself and Popoy out. As the Malay police officer Azman (Osman Sulaiman) in charge of the situation quickly remarks and which Sky echoes later on, this isn't Hollywood - and it is clear that Kwek intends for the turn of events to be read as satire, not to be taken entirely at face value. Alas, Kwek fumbles at trying to remain tonally consistent throughout the supposedly tense last hour. On one hand, he aims to amplify the local-versus-foreigner divide by positing that the former would respond by demonstrating with placards reading 'Singapore for Singaporeans' outside the scene of the crisis and tearing down shops that belong to the latter, but hey any Singaporean will tell you how unlikely that is given our strict laws against public assembly. On the other, he tries to find poignancy in each one of his flawed characters' own personal struggles, whether is it to come to terms with their selfishness, infidelity, or hypocrisy. Yet Kwek never quite finds the right balance to accomplish both, so much so that the two end up pulling the film in opposite directions. At close to two hours, Kwek also cannot quite keep the same tight grip over the narrative. Despite occasional flashes of violence (including a chopped up hand), Kwek fails to replicate the white- knuckle suspense to be expected of any a hostage thriller. You'll find yourself questioning just how much of a crisis it even is when all Onassis has to hold his hostages at bay is a huge cleaver he calls 'Ah Tiong' that was passed down from generation to generation of owner of his Filipino restaurant. In fact, Kwek undermines what visceral thrills his audience might have of watching a hostage drama depicted in Singapore by a prologue at the very beginning, which sees Onassis, Sky and Michelle very much alive and healthy in a TV studio being interviewed by talk show host Anita Kapoor one year after the supposedly harrowing events. To his credit, Kwek has assembled a great cast for his film. Award- winning Filipino actor Quizon impresses with a restrained and heartfelt portrayal of a working-class man driven to desperation. Pang brings unexpected nuance to a character which we would love to hate. Next to Quizon and Pang, Tan's slightly hollow performance doesn't register as much at the start, but becomes more subtle as she is confronted with the errors of her adulterous ways. But for all its flaws, 'Unlucky Plaza' is uncharacteristically Singaporean. Yes, its protagonist may be Filipino, but its topics and themes are rooted deeply in our milieu, and with his latest, Kwek has probably cemented himself as one of our most iconoclast filmmakers. Even though Kwek doesn't match his ambition and derring- do with the skill to deliver an equally empathetic film, this mix of thriller and satire still is probably one of the most intriguing local films you'll see this year.
Comedy / Crime / Drama
Comedy / Crime / Drama
Father. Restaurateur. Hostage taker. How did one man's financial woes spiral into a harrowing crisis that captivated the world?
November 27, 2020