News articles about people falling prey to rental scams inspired the screenplay for the black comedy-thriller Unlucky Plaza, film-maker Ken Kwek's first full-length feature.
"There was a spate of them from around 2009 to 2012, mainly targeted at foreigners. I thought it was an interesting point to start the exploration of the tension between foreigners and locals," he says.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, held after a press screening of the highly anticipated follow-up to his controversial package of short films, Sex.Violence.FamilyValues (2012), he said the his new work is largely based on real events.
In the film, restaurant owner Onassis (Epy Quizon) becomes increasingly desperate as his business in Lucky Plaza fails following a food poisoning scandal. His path, and those of actor-turned-success coach Terence (Adrian Pang), teacher Michelle (Judee Tan), Pastor Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki), gangster Baby Bear (Guo Liang) collide, sparking an incident that touches communal raw nerves, locally and internationally.
The film's tagline is "S**t hits the fan in the world's safest city".
Germany-based distributor Media Luna has secured rights to the film, which should lead to its commercial release in Singapore early next year (2015), says Kwek.
Singapore International Film Festival director Zhang Wenjie says the team picked up Kwek's work as the festival's opening film because "it packs a punch".
"We've never seen a Singapore film like this. It's accessible and entertaining, but with depth. It's a great way to open the festival," he continues.
Too many independent films are constructed in a happy-go-lucky fashion, without enough attention given to overall story structure, dialogue or character development, but Unlucky Plaza suffers from none of these faults, adds Zhang.
The SGIFF opens with the film on Dec 4, 6.45pm. The screening (Shaw Lido 1) is sold out, but another hall has just been added (Lido 4) and tickets are available online at Sistic.
The film played the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and also screened at the Warsaw Film Festival last month (oct).
Actress Judee Tan says with a laugh that viewers in Poland told her that "you guys speak really good English".
The film is one of the rare feature-length local works made in the English language. The last feature to be made in English was the horror work Afterimages, which opened here in September. Locally made English-language movies have a dismal box office history in Singapore.
Kwek has in the past observed how Singapore viewers' ears quickly zoom in on false notes when local characters speak English, taking them out of the world of the movie.
As writer-director, he worked hard to ensure that characters "code switch" their English correctly when moving between social situations, as English speakers in Singapore do, he says.
According to the Media Development Authority's film classification web site, Unlucky Plaza has an M18 rating for "coarse language".
Kwek says he finds the rating excessive and that an NC16 would have been fairer. An M18 excludes students from film and tertiary schools who might be interested in the Singapore themes explored in the story, he argues.
He received a script development grant of $20,000 from the MDA, but had to raise the film's $800,000 budget privately. An application for a New Talent Feature Grant, awarded to budding film-makers, was turned down for unspecified reasons.
He says he is "really, really f****** tired" of being dogged in the media by the furore generated by Sex.Violence.FamilyValues, which was banned for its racial language, then given an M18 rating and screened in 2012 after it was edited. He was delighted by how when he screened Unlucky Plaza overseas, no one cared about his scrapes with censorship.
"We do need to get over it," he says.