Culture Vulture

Singapore through a Western lens

Mister John, like Saint Jack before it, reflects tensions between old and new

I knew next to nothing about Mister John when I bought tickets to a screening of the film at the Southeast Asian Film Festival - except that it was set in Singapore and starred an actor I liked, the ever-reliable Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game Of Thrones fame.

It's hard to summarise the beautifully shot Mister John, which was directed by the artful husband-and-wife film- makers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. A novella of a film at just over 90 minutes long, it is a bleak but also blackly funny character study of an Irish man, Gerry Devine, who arrives in Singapore in the wake of his brother John's death.

As Gerry encounters John's grieving widow, Kim (Zoe Tay), and visits his brother's seedy hostess bar, there is a gradual unravelling of his identity, with hallucinatory flashes of a parallel life, of stepping into his brother's shoes. It is clear that his brother was the livelier, brassier one, the light and life of parties in a den of vice, knitting people together and remaining decidedly chummy with everyone despite some difficult clients, to say the least.

Plenty of reviews have linked Mister John to a less sordid, more elegantly tuned version of Nicholas Refn's bloodbathed Only God Forgives (2013). But what was so tantalising about the film were its nods to a more obscure, and arguably more significant piece of cinema - Peter Bogdanovich's Saint Jack (1979), which was filmed and subsequently banned in Singapore for its more risque elements. (The ban was lifted in 2006.)

Saint Jack, based on the novel of the same name by Paul Theroux, tracks the genial Jack Flowers, a fixer who plans to open his own brothel in Singapore. While essentially a pimp, Jack, played sensitively by Ben Gazarra, is also the film's unlikely conscience and moral compass. He struggles to do right by his stable of girls and the people he counts as friends.

Having watched both films, I cannot help but feel that Mister John provides an epilogue of sorts to Saint Jack's journey.

In Mister John, that saint is now a mister, a man, reduced to mortality - in fact, he's dead before we even meet him, as the opening shot pans across John's body face down in a quarry lake in what is presumably Pulau Ubin. We're never given an answer to his unnatural death, but that gauzy halo around his life lives on, and Gerry can never quite take his place.

The certainty and familiarity that Jack possesses in Singapore is non-existent in the aimless Gerry when he arrives, and it is only through borrowing his brother's persona and finding a purpose that he tries to regain some of his masculinity. But the ending is still the same. Both men are worn down by their desperation to please, to fit into a country to which they do not belong.

But beyond that, watching Mister John made me ponder what Singapore has become, in those 34 years between Jack and John. While Saint Jack was also very much a snapshot of the crumbling vestiges of colonialism, and the creators of Mister John have taken pains to emphasise that it is not a film about Singapore, and that the island is merely a locale - one cannot help but to view Singapore as a silent character in both stories.

Singapore is often a bit of a curiosity in the gaze of a Western cinematic lens, which usually reduces the city-state to something more flat and caricatured and easier to digest, not entirely dissimilar from William Gibson's notorious essay, "Disneyland with the death penalty".

In this vein, both films do present Singapore's underbelly with an almost deliberate showiness, singling out a glimpse of the dirt behind a squeaky-clean corporate nation. It is, perhaps, the most flogged stereotype of Singapore (when a friend tosses a cigarette butt out of a taxi window, Jack comments: "$500 fine, you know that?").

Everyone fights to point out: The dirt is still there, just swept under the carpet.

These films are still uneven photocopies of Singapore, but at the same time, I doubt either would have been as satisfying - and they are, despite their flaws - if set in a different country or place. There is something about this city-state that makes it an apt backdrop for these anxieties and re-evaluations of identity, both then and now.

I think this is largely because both Saint Jack and Mister John reflect the tensions between old and new: In the 1970s, the island was on the cusp of conservative reform, as the authorities moved to clean out the more unpalatable corners of society and keep the country spick and span. Singapore would become an economic powerhouse, no longer in the shadow of its colonial leaders. And in the 2010s, there came a new wave of nostalgia for a more chaotic, organic past, of foregone spaces such as Bugis Street and retaining a bit of Singapore's wild heart.

The camera captures this: There is a loving attention to Singapore's unruly physical landscape in both films, which deeply inhales the last remaining patches of lush greenery and untouched flora and fauna before they recede forever.

And perhaps we are a good canvas simply because we have an inherent identity crisis of our own that hasn't quite been resolved: Are we like Jack, striking out on our own in a country we live in but do not understand? Or like Gerry, slipping into someone else's shoes in attempts to emulate something we can never be?

Jack recalls, bluntly, how Sang Nila Utama mistook a tiger for a lion and named Singapore the Lion City: "That's the point of the story, the dummy couldn't tell a tiger from a lion. So, what can you expect, a place that gets started like that?"

And despite that grip of the Western lens, both films manage to confront - with surprising clarity - our own anxieties about ourselves and who we are.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan