Reviews

Local film 667 is bold and accomplished, Stronger an Oscar shoo-in, Kingsman sequel

The omnibus 667 is this year's strongest Singapore-made work; Stronger is a moving portrayal of a reluctant hero; and Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a watchable sequel

The best film this week is 667(NC16, 75 minutes, screening this weekend at Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, 4/5 stars), a collection of short works that, when taken together, is this year's best Singapore-made work for the big screen so far.

Five film-makers - four seasoned on the festival circuit and one newcomer - were asked by the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre to give their takes on Chinese culture in this newish nation.

This omnibus was in the news recently when The New York Times cited it as proof that the Government was relaxing its rules against dialect use. A swift official rebuttal followed.

It's best to forget all that. Watching this, the novelty of the Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese and Cantonese dialogue wears off quickly.

What sticks is how each film-maker, under the hand of producer Royston Tan, has boldly embraced and interpreted the brief of Chinese identity.

Liao Jiekai's Nocturne starts as a melancholic period piece about a young man who becomes a political fugitive. Just when this looks to be another wound-opener about Chinese student activism of the 1950s, the story makes a sudden turn, and the present starts talking to the past, metaphorically.

In The Veiled Willow from the 667 collection of short works, film-maker Eva Tang explores the language of Cantonese food and female hierarchies in the 1960s.
In The Veiled Willow from the 667 collection of short works, film-maker Eva Tang explores the language of Cantonese food and female hierarchies in the 1960s. PHOTO: EVA TANG

In typical Liao style, the tone is sly and oblique, but he seems to suggest that words create the world, and when the words are gone, so too goes the world.

In contrast to Liao's forlorn Hokkien-English-Mandarin rumination on erasure, Kirsten Tan (Pop Aye, 2017) makes her work all about re-imagining. She opts for cheeky cabaret in her film, Wu Song Sha Sao, in which the legend of the adulterous Pan Jinlian, a staple of Teochew street opera, lives again in a neon-coloured dream, set in a gangland nightclub.

A knife-wielding man and a woman in a low-cut dress sing of faithless wives and blood oaths. Whisky bombs are poured. Erotica from dynasties past flashes on screen. Pop art meets the Chinese classic Water Margin.

It is a weird and abstract form of cinema, but also visually exciting.

In the heartfelt and affectionate Letters From The Motherland, film-maker He Shuming takes the letters flowing between his Singaporean father and relatives in Hainan as raw material for a voice-over, read over footage of clan gatherings. Chinese family members never say "I love you" to one another, but in the letters, those words, hidden between the lines, are said many times.

In The Veiled Willow, film-maker Eva Tang (The Songs We Sang, 2015) explores the language of Cantonese food and female hierarchies in the 1960s; while in Ke, newcomer Jun Chong turns in a film about a Hakka clan cemetery's relocation and what it means to a distraught woman unable to find a relative's gravestone.

These comprise the strongest, most accomplished collection of short films since the SG50 omnibus 7 Letters (2015), also co-produced by Royston Tan.

There are English dialects too.

In Stronger (M18, 119 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3/5 stars), the variety used is the Boston Working Class so beloved by actors such as Mark Wahlberg and Ben Affleck, to the point of parody.

In this biopic of Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the tones are harsh and the air is blue with swearing. But that is the sort of blue-collar realism that the team, led by director David Gordon Green, wants to convey.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bauman, a man forced to become a hero against his will, because his home city needs him to become a symbol of its resilience.

Green's team makes a point about the insatiable news cycle that reduces people like Bauman into easily consumed feel-good fodder, a comment that the earlier marathon bombing film, Patriot's Day (2016), did not make.

Gyllenhaal gives a moving performance, one that will most likely earn him a Best Actor nod at the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Not only because he is good, but more cynically, also because disabled character plus inspiring story equals awards bait.

 The Golden Circle.
Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Pedro Pascal in Kingsman: The Golden Circle. PHOTO: 20TH CENTURY FOX

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (NC16, 142 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) will not win any nominations, unless it is for special effects. The sequel to the 2014 Kingsman: The Secret Service is just as watchable, though it could shed 20 minutes from its two-hour-plus run time.

  • BOOK IT / 667

  • WHERE: Auditorium, Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, 1 Straits Boulevard

    WHEN: Saturday, 2.30 and 7.30pm; Sunday, 2.30 and 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $15 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

The franchise, based on a graphic novel series, is helmed by Matthew Vaughn, who brings his brand of campy action, one that owes a debt to Stephen Chow's The God Of Cookery (1996) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004). There are more gadgets, sight gags and bizarre prop-related ways for henchmen to die than in the last movie.

And he does not skimp on strong, rounded villains here either, a bonus given how the Statesman fizzle as characters. They are American cousins of the British Kingsman super-spies, coming to help Eggsy (Taron Egerton) after a bomb levels the London base.

This leaves Julianne Moore to carry the show. She is wonderfully creepy as drug kingpin Poppy, a chirpy 1950s television mum who isn't afraid to embrace her inner psychopath.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2017, with the headline 'Bold takes on Chinese identity'. Print Edition | Subscribe