A black comedy with a strong dose of action is how Singaporean film-maker Ken Kwek describes Unlucky Plaza, his latest project. The film will make its world premiere next month at the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff).
In an e-mail interview, Kwek told Life! that Unlucky Plaza draws inspiration from crime movies such as Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Fargo (1996).
Written and directed by Kwek, Unlucky Plaza tells the story of Onassis Hernandez, a Filipino owner of a successful diner serving the food of his homeland. A ruinous scandal over tainted food causes him to take a drastic step, one that sparks a global media frenzy.
It stars Filipino actor Jeffrey Epy Quizon in the lead role. Other parts are taken by local veteran stage and screen actors Adrian Pang, Judee Tan, Shane Mardjuki, Janice Koh, Pamela Oei, who is Kwek's wife, and television host and actor Guo Liang. The film's title is a play on Lucky Plaza, the Orchard Road mall known for its businesses serving Filipino residents.
Kwek is hoping for a Singapore distributor to pick up his film, which is produced by his own label, Kaya Toast Pictures. "No plans just yet for a Singapore release, though, of course, I would love for Singapore audiences to see it. Epy Quizon and I will be travelling to Toronto; I hope to meet distributors at the festival and take things from there," he says.
He is delighted that the festival has selected his work. It is screening in the Discovery section, which highlights new and upcoming directors in world cinema. "It's a fantastic place to begin the life of a film and I am immensely grateful for and encouraged by the opportunity. Tiff is a cineaste's festival, a real treat for the movie-going public as well and I'm thrilled that Unlucky Plaza will be a part of that celebration," says Kwek.
The Toronto festival, founded in 1976, has a reputation for screening works that go on to win big prizes. These include Silver Linings Playbook (2012), winner of a Best Leading Actress Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence, and Argo (2012), winner of three Oscars, including Best Picture.
Last September, Anthony Chen's Golden Horse-winning, coming-of-age drama Ilo Ilo was also selected for the Discovery section, following its world debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
A spokesman for the Toronto festival says: "We've had a long history of showing films from Singapore at both the festival and our year-round programming."
It began in 2001 with the romance Chicken Rice War (2000), starring Pierre Png and Lum May Yee, screened in the Discovery section and which won the Volkswagen Discovery Award.
Kwek is no stranger to the crime thriller genre, having co-written Kidnapper (2010) with director Kelvin Tong. He also co-wrote the period drama It's A Great, Great World (2011), also directed by Tong.
Kwek's new film comes a year after the release of his debut work as writer-director, the satirical comedy Sex.Violence.FamilyValues, an omnibus of three short films that explored Singaporean attitudes to sex, race and other cultural norms. In developments that were followed by local and international media, the film was at first allowed for release in 2012 with an M18 classification.
In a dramatic about-face by the Media Development Authority, the film was banned days before its cinema release over alleged racial insults in the dialogue. This was lifted last year after a few seconds of speech was overdubbed with music. It was also given a stricter R21 rating.
"The ban (on Sex.Violence.FamilyValues) definitely affected me, though I'm not sure how exactly that manifests itself in the making of Unlucky Plaza. In terms of ratings in Singapore, we'll cross that bridge when we get there," Kwek says.
He wrote the screenplay for The Blue Mansion (2009), a satire on Singapore politics directed by Glen Goei, but prefers to keep mum on the amount of social commentary in his latest work.
"Wait and see," he says.