Royston Tan's new feature 3688 shows he needs fresher ways to express his vision

Royston Tan's 3688 charms with its recognisable Singapore setting and hopeful characters

Joi Chua plays 38-year-old Fei Fei, a carpark attendant looking after a father stricken with dementia.
Joi Chua plays 38-year-old Fei Fei, a carpark attendant looking after a father stricken with dementia.PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE, UNITED INTERNATIONAL PICTURES, WARNER BROTHERS
In Black Mass, Johnny Depp (above) is notorius mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.
In Black Mass, Johnny Depp (above) is notorius mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE, UNITED INTERNATIONAL PICTURES, WARNER BROTHERS
In The Visit, Olivia DeJonge (above) plays Becca, who with her brother, is sent to live with her grandparents.
In The Visit, Olivia DeJonge (above) plays Becca, who with her brother, is sent to live with her grandparents.PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE, UNITED INTERNATIONAL PICTURES, WARNER BROTHERS

The colours pop, the characters have their feet in HDB-land but their heads are alive with art and music from another time. In a world that has little time for dreamers, they struggle to be one with their passions. Welcome to the world of Royston Tan.

In 3688 (PG, 100 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars), the film-maker once more plunges the viewer into his universe - a Singapore that looks like nothing you have ever seen, but which you recognise.

Tan's forte is detail and mood, not story structure, and this work's lack of narrative discipline is infuriating - motifs are repeated ad nauseam, skits are inserted willy-nilly and music sequences serve neither character or story. What people expect from Tan is sparkle and heart, and luckily there is plenty of that.

Fei Fei (local singer Joi Chua) is a single, 38-year-old parking attendant looking after a father (stage actor Michael Tan) struggling with dementia. He used to be a Rediffusion technician and believes himself to be still employed by the now-defunct cable audio service, much loved by the Cantonese- and Hokkien-speaking communities.

Fei Fei has her hands full coping with boss Jenny (veteran entertainer Rahimah Rahim), a merciless car-ticketer disgusted by Fei Fei's forgiving nature.

What keeps Fei Fei going is her love for the singing of her namesake, Taiwanese legend Fong Fei-fei, and her friends, which include Auntie Hai Xian (Liu Lingling), a kopitiam owner prone to outlandish outfits and mid-service song-belting. Her son Hai Er (local rapper Shigga Shay) helps her out at the coffee shop.

Writer-director Tan's first feature in seven years circles around themes of fragile souls torn between beauty and duty, a theme that propelled both 881 (2007) and 12 Lotus (2008).

Tan set his previous two films in the world of getai, or street music theatre. 881's Cinderella fairy tale was a hit; 12 Lotus kept the cartoonish tone but was shades bleaker, which kept everyone away except fans.

You can take the film-maker out of getai, but you can't take the getai out of the film-maker: Tan sets his new film in the world of coffee shops and carparks, but the spirit of getai lives here in all but name.

"Camp" as a word barely describes the outfits worn by Auntie Hai Xian, for example, and Fei Fei's carpark colleagues form a chorus line when needed.

Chua does a good job as the quiet and determined vehicular fine-slapper, as does Tan playing her father. Their story, however, sits uneasily next to the nuttiness of the rest of the movie, up to and including Hai Xian's food-themed hats, Shigga Shay's rapping and the rat-a-tat multilingual punning.

Fei Fei's father Uncle Radio's illness traps him in the past, just as his daughter's dashed musical aspirations trap her.

As a writer-director, Tan carries around an idealised version of old Singapore in his head, while his characters suffer from attachments to things long gone. As single-minded auteur visions go, it's not the worst, but perhaps it is time to express that idea in fresher and, one hopes, less scattershot ways.

If the title 3688 is a pun (hint: it's in Cantonese), then so is Black Mass (M18, 122 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars), a phrase that plays on the name of the gangster James "Whitey" Bulger and his stomping ground of Boston, Massachusetts as well as the unholy communion of the FBI and Bulger's Irish mob.

In a story that could have come from the film factories of India or Hong Kong, the Feds protect Bulger and his Winter Hill gang, believing it is the lesser of two evils compared with Boston's Italian mob.

As Bulger (played by Johnny Depp) rises to power, his younger brother William (Bendedict Cumberbatch) is marching up the ranks in the state legislature.

Based on a 2001 book by two Boston Globe journalists and helmed by famously actor-friendly director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, 2009; Out Of The Furnace, 2013), the piece owes a debt to Goodfellas (1990) for how it portrays gang politics as messy and fractious rather than sinister.

Cooper's indie roots come out in the lack of narration; barebones title cards tell you the who, when and where. But scenes are not underpinned by period rock or jazz in the Scorsese style. In fact, there is little gang glamour on display - Boston or the Irish must be nothing like New York or the Italians.

Bulger is shown to be an ambitious dealmaker, a vain man with a hair-trigger temper, but who also happened to be a loving father and son to a sainted mother. To the people of his neighbourhood, he was the guy who helped his former grade-school teachers with their groceries.

That character study is powered by Depp's depiction of the man as a coiled spring, as likely to give an associate a hug as three lead slugs in the face. The film is picking up Oscar buzz, and deservedly so.

Everything else is pushed into the background, including the hows and whys, Bulger's alliance with FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton, also giving his grade-A effort) and his relationship with politician brother William (Cumberbatch, doing what he can in a small part). Peter Sarsgaard's red-eyed, drugged-out Florida sports fixer Brian Halloran is a highlight.

If Cooper's star is on the ascendant, then it might give a wave to the one belonging to director M. Night Shyamalan as it heads down.

The Visit (PG13, 94 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2/5 stars) is the thriller-horror specialist's latest product, which he also penned.

After an unbroken string of critical duds (starting from The Lady In The Water, 2006 and ending with his last work, the Will-and-Jaden Smith vehicle After Earth, 2013) the film-maker seems to have understood that if you can't make good movies, then at least make cheap ones, so even if you flop, your fall won't be from as great a height.

Kids Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent by their mother (Karthryn Hahn) to live with their grandparents on their farm. Weirdness ensues with Nana (Deanna Dunegan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) that is brushed off by their mother as normal old-people issues.

The first red flag about this movie is a found-footage story. Becca is making a documentary and always gets her shot even when all hell is breaking loose; when it happens, the scene looks even jerkier than usual.

What happens next is a collection of jump scares until everyone arrives at the final Shyamalan trademarked final twist (also called, in more recent times, the closing cringe).

In between, there is something about the girl being really serious about film-making, an incident with adult diapers, and the boy rapping. Yes, he is this movie's Shigga Shay.

Is that a requirement now?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2015, with the headline 'Familiar yet different HDB-land '. Subscribe