Our Sister Mambo makes brave choices for a mainstream local movie

Mambo (played by Michelle Chong, above right, with co-star Siti Khalijah Zainal) makes choices that surprise her parents in Our Sister Mambo.
Mambo (played by Michelle Chong, above right, with co-star Siti Khalijah Zainal) makes choices that surprise her parents in Our Sister Mambo.PHOTO: CATHAY ASIA FILMS

Our Sister Mambo and The Little Death focus on sexual choices

Designed mainly to evoke warm fuzzies about its sponsor's movie legacy, this ensemble drama-comedy grows confidently into something more than a feature-length commercial.

Our Sister Mambo (PG, 93 minutes, now showing, 3/5 stars) is a project by Cathay Organisation marking the 80th anniversary of the film distributor and exhibitor, loosely adapted from the Cathay classics Our Sister Hedy and The Greatest Civil War On Earth (1960).

The Wong parents (Moses Lim and Audrey Luo) have four daughters (Ethel Yap, Michelle Chong, Oon Shu An and Joey Leong), each making choices about love and career that surprise their parents. Screenwriter Michael Chiang (Army Daze, 1996) and Malaysia-born, Taiwan-based director Ho Wi Ding (Pinoy Sunday, 2009) struggle at times baking Cathay's brand into the story, but there is admirable restraint shown in what could have been a corporate vanity project.

Mr Wong is an employee of Cathay, prone to ramble on about his employer's past triumphs while friends and family look on indulgently. These sponsor mentions are shown as straightforward proclamations - there are no clips shown or fantastical re-enactments. What a shame because these sequences and others cry out for a helmer with more visual flair than Ho, whose low-key, earnest style appears to be at odds with Chiang's screenplay.

Chiang finds humour in topical satire and giving improv-capable actors free rein, seen here in the K-drama-obsessed character of Mrs Wong and the outrageous Chinese accent of actor Nelson Chia. Ho does not step on the jokes, but neither does he try to make them of a piece with the story.  

Most of the energies focus on tracing the arcs of the Wong daughters' interests.

Ho's wilfully poker-faced approach works better with the more deadpan characters such as Mambo, played by comedic actress Chong, whose part here is oddly the least comedic of the four sisters.

But where this work stands out is in the courage of its story. The sisters, average Singaporeans, make boldly unaverage choices of the sort you would never see in popular cinema, especially in areas of sex and dating. This film challenges viewers to find these women likeable. It succeeds, but leaves one wishing that a director with a sensibility as playful as Chiang's had been in charge.

Sexual choices do not come much weirder than in Australian comedy The Little Death (M18, 96 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars). Five couples appear to have perfect suburban lives, but under the sheets, dissatisfaction rules.

This gentle farce about the modern quest for sexual wellness and its absurd consequences trips lightly from start to finish. It makes the audience forget about the "sex" part of "sex comedy" and stands in contrast to Hollywood, which sees sex humour from the point of view of a middle-schooler.

In this leafy Sydney neighbourhood, the cure for the absence of the "little death" (taken from the French euphemism for orgasm) is a fetish of some kind. 

Middle-aged office drone Phil (Alan Dukes) is aroused by watching wife Maureen (Lisa McCune) sleep, while Rowena (Kate Box) gets in the mood only when partner Richard (Patrick Brammall) is crying, for example.

The philias are never brought up in conversation because of shame or because talking about it will kill the thrill. The escalating situational awkwardness is handled with skilful grace by actor, writer and director Josh Lawson, who makes the audience forget the contrivance of the fetish set-up, to play along with the characters.

But if you prefer to watch something that will make you want to take a shower afterwards, try Welcome To New York (R21, 120 minutes, opens tomorrow,  2/5 stars). Naughty-boy director Abel Ferrara returns to territory staked out in his most celebrated work, Bad Lieutenant (1992).

Based loosely on the 2011 alleged sexual-assault case of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn , the story (co-written by Ferrara) follows the arrest of diplomat Devereaux (Gerard Depardieu) after he rapes a hotel cleaning worker, throwing away his future in the upper reaches of French politics. Old-money wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) and straight-laced daughter Sophie (Marie Moute) are left to salvage relationships and reputations.

Ferrara is in his element pointing the camera at degradation. Devereaux's parties are orgies fuelled by "Cialis, cognac and ice cream", quips one participant. The film-maker is enraged by the hypocrisy of power; the pornographic rutting that lies beneath the pageantry drives his images. He takes pleasure in bringing Devereaux far, far down.

Depardieu gives what is usually termed a "brave performance" - his character is strip-searched by prison officials in what is only one of several long scenes designed to test your gag reflex.

Too bad Ferrara runs out of ideas by the second act. Having humiliated the pompous Frenchman, he loses interest. Bisset's performance as wife Simone is a joy to watch, but that is the only highlight in this grab bag of grubbiness.

• The Little Death is screening only at The Projector, Level 5, Golden Mile Tower, Beach Road.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Reviews Let's talk about sex'. Print Edition | Subscribe