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Movie reviews: Local sexploitation flick Siew Lup needs a sense of humour

The Return fails to dig deeper into the issues surrounding a man forgotten by the state and Siew Lup gets lost in the cliches of soft porn

Weeks can pass without any local content in our cinemas. Then there are periods such as this, when two Singapore pictures come out at the same time.

Their release dates might coincide, but the content comes from opposite ends of the taste spectrum. One is as low-key and contemplative as the other is lurid and loud.

The Return (PG13, 83 minutes, opens tomorrow, only at Filmgarde Bugis+, 3/5 stars) asks the question: What is the price paid by families when a father disappears through an act of the state?

In his debut feature, artist and film-maker Green Zeng drops the elderly Lim Soon Wen (television veteran Chen Tianxiang) into mainstream society after decades in captivity. There are brief flashbacks showing his arrest and treatment at the hands of the authorities.

Lim Soon Wen (played by veteran actor Chen Tianxiang, above) is a man grappling with life in mainstream society after decades in captivity in Singapore film, The Return.
Lim Soon Wen (played by veteran actor Chen Tianxiang, above) is a man grappling with life in mainstream society after decades in captivity in Singapore film, The Return. PHOTO: MIRTILLO FILMS

In this work, selected for the 2015 Venice International Film Critics' Week, Zeng mostly skips the political commentary in favour of showing the toll exacted by forced separation.

Lim has missed the death of his wife; he now has to reconnect with his son, Tien (Vincent Tee), and daughter, Mei (Tan Beng Chiak). Not only that, the landmarks he knows are also gone, replaced by expressways.

Zeng is fascinated by the idea of a Singapore that behaves like a cluster of antibodies, attacking and neutralising anything it sees as foreign. His preoccupation echoes that of film-makers such as Boo Junfeng (Sandcastle, 2010; The Apprentice, 2016) and K. Rajagopal (A Yellow Bird, 2016).

The Apprentice and A Yellow Bird create drama from the fear and frustration triggered by that attack.

In Zeng's film, there is little dramatic conflict: Lim is stoic and resigned, except for the occasional trauma-induced hallucination and nightmare. He has made peace with his past.

That understatement is the film's strength and a weakness. Zeng's wide-angle shots of the frail Lim walking about are heartbreaking - they show an old man who still loves Singapore, which has forgotten him, in spite of what was done to him.

But there is not much more in this slim volume of ideas. Veteran actor Chen is the best thing here. With a slight smile and a faraway look, he adds reams of humanising detail to a story that occasionally threatens to reduce him to a figure of pity.

Roast pork seller Quan (Sunny Pang) grapples with an unhappy wife in Siew Lup.
Roast pork seller Quan (Sunny Pang) grapples with an unhappy wife in Siew Lup. PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT

Siew Lup (R21, 82 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2/5 stars) is film-maker Sam Loh's soft-porn follow-up to erotic thriller Lang Tong (2014).

As he promised, the second of a planned trilogy ups the juice factor: There is more skin and slaughter than in the first instalment. Unfortunately, the quality has remained the same or even dipped.

Newcomer Rebecca Chen is Mia, unhappily married to roast pork seller Quan (Sunny Pang). Enter handsome funeral director Wu (Louis Wu). Sex happens, a lot of it, in showers, hotel rooms, on top of coffee-shop tables.

There is a high price to be paid for all this lasciviousness - soon, blood flows as thick as the roast pork gravy in Quan's stall.

Loh says he wants to fill the made-in-Singapore sexploitation niche. Nothing wrong with that. The problem lies with his tone: When everything in the soft-porn movie is a shameless genre cliche, it would be wise to wink at the audience a little.

Ice Cube (left) and Charlie Day (right) are teachers locked in a feud in Fist Fight.
Ice Cube (left) and Charlie Day (right) are teachers locked in a feud in Fist Fight. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

That is not an option for Loh, who wants this movie to be taken seriously. In a thriller almost devoid of surprises, that is the biggest shock of all.

Speaking of cliche: Fist Fight (M18, 91 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2/5 stars) opens with a promising setup, then falls back on a set of lazy gags to coast to a ragged, ugly finish.

Actor Charlie Day, from television's It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, is the picture of the browbeaten teacher Andy, a man cowed by staff and students alike. Through a series of mishaps, he starts a feud with fellow teacher Ron, played by Ice Cube with his trademark look of fury set to maximum intensity - if his brows knitted any more, they would be permanently joined.

The jokes are mostly of Andy shrieking in terror following a threat of physical violence from Ron, because violence is what director Richie Keen thinks is funny.

Every student in the school is cruel, Ron and Andy are dimwits and their bosses are sadists - in a world like this, it is hard to root for any side in a fist fight.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'Promising ideas fizzle out'. Print Edition | Subscribe