Movie review: Nathan Hartono well-cast as object of desire in When Ghost Meets Zombie

Nathan Hartono makes his leading man debut in romantic comedy When Ghost Meets Zombie.
Nathan Hartono makes his leading man debut in romantic comedy When Ghost Meets Zombie.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

Romantic comedy

WHEN GHOST MEETS ZOMBIE (PG13)

107 minutes/Opens Feb 14/3 stars


The story: Some time in the past, a tsunami threatens a Thai village and a group of men save everyone, at the cost of their own lives. In the present day, a group of Singapore beauty pageant contestants visit the statues of the heroes. Zhen Zhen (Ferlyn G) suspects something is amiss with the statue of Pong (Nathan Hartono) and later, when an accident causes her to lose her life, she discovers that he is a corpse, reanimated.

It is a clever premise for a body-swap romance as described by director and co-writer Han Yew Kwang: A man without a soul is possessed by a woman who is a soul without a body.

But everything, as they say, hinges on execution. That promising premise has been - pardon the pun - fleshed out into a movie with a lot in common with the zombie played by musician-turned-actor Hartono.

It moves stiffly, wanders about searching for direction and falls flat often. But the film is saved by some funny scenes that exploit something other than Mediacorp star cameos or catchphrases for punchlines.

After an over-stuffed prelude marred by irrelevant exposition, the story moves from Thailand to Singapore. Here it emerges that Zhen Zhen is a ghost because of unfinished business. Because she cannot move objects, manipulating the corpse of the former Pong like a mecha suit comes in handy.

Hartono, making his leading man debut, could not have found a better outlet for his good looks. His role calls for him to do the standard zombie stiff-armed shuffle, with some dancing thrown in later. It also calls for him to be the object of female lust in a couple of Magic Mike-style (2012) male stripper scenes, and in that regard, he is well cast.

Along the way, as these films tend to show, she discovers that what she wants is not what she needs. These needs have to do with her relationship with her mother, played with sensitivity by Fann Wong, and her friends Bai Bai, a mortuary cosmetologist (Jesseca Liu), and Lai Lai, a fitness instructor (Jeremy Chan).

 

The villain is a Taoist priest and demon slayer played by Gurmit Singh, who exhibits a precise sense of physical comedy. Determined to destroy Pong, he makes exorcism attacks out of the blue. In a pleasant departure from the norm, Gurmit's priest is no simple buffoon, but a sympathetic character, a man trying to clean up a mistake.

Director Han has built a reputation on accessible independent comedies (18 Grams Of Love, 2007; Rubbers, 2014), which have tended to be character-driven, not joke-driven. He also prefers to make a few strong moments of humour work rather than crack an endless slew of weak jokes, a trait found in too many local works.

Here, in what might be his most commercial project yet, he has opted to play it safe.

The weirdness of the gender body-swap is ignored, for example, so there are no bits about a woman discovering the awkwardness of male protuberances, or the psychological toll such a change might exact on her mind. Han is also guilty of inserting crowd-pleasing bits and cameos that distract from the main couple-in-love thread, but his attention to detail and love of the romantic comedy genre is thankfully still intact.

Watch the trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWjx97ebNwg