Film review: Sex.Violence.FamilyValues pushes buttons

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 14, 2013

Review Drama


47 minutes/Opens today/*** 1/2

The story: This made-in-Singapore anthology of three English-language shorts runs the gamut from the darkly comic (the first short, Cartoons) to the near-slapstick (Porn Masala) to moody drama (The Bouncer). Cartoons stars Serene Chen as a mum at her wits' end when her son starts drawing inappropriate pictures. Porn Masala has Adrian Pang, Pam Oei and Vadi PVSS embroiled in the making of "Singapore's first porn movie", while The Bouncer has Sylvia Ratonel, Osman Sulaiman and Tan Kheng Hua in a family drama about a daughter who wants to express her wild side.

Finally. The movie at the heart of a brouhaha over the limits of racial speech in Singapore gets its release today, five months late, with a new, stricter classification and with edits to its dialogue.

The verdict, now that it is time to see the film as a film and not a cultural sticking point, is that it is worth anyone's time to give it a watch.

This is a project that takes risks - and not just the one that caused it to be pulled from release following complaints about racial dialogue in Porn Masala.

In Cartoons, for example, writer-director Ken Kwek comments on smothering Singapore parents and social unease with sexuality, especially when displayed by children. Good performances from Serene Chen as the mum Carol, Susan Tordoff as the kindergarten teacher and child actors Matthew Loo and Caryn Ong plump up a story that can feel like a one-premise joke stretched a little too thinly.

Porn Masala, the short at the centre of the film's withdrawal and reclassification, sees Adrian Pang and Pam Oei as a husband-and-wife team trying to make Singapore's first porn movie. Pang in particular is at his hammy best as the Ah Beng film-maker with delusions of himself as a renegade artist.

His performance, aided by a similarly over-the-top performance by Oei, overshadows the more nuanced layers of commentary on racial and family relations put in by Kwek. These are played out in the quieter scenes between Vadi PVSS as the Indian porn actor with a heart of gold and Lez Ann Chong as the porn actress with a troubled past.

The loud argument scene between Pang's and Vadi's characters is the one that has been overdubbed with music, a make-do patch following public complaints about the use of racial insults. Oddly enough, the use of music adds a meta layer of comedy and commentary on Singapore's stand on open speech - it reminds one of modern participatory art, though Kwek himself might not give the edits such a charitable spin.

The last short, The Bouncer, sees Kwek trying his hand at family drama. This work is the most properly cinematic of the lot in technical values such as location, soundtrack and cinematography, and it looks polished.

The story revolves around the tension between a father (Osman Sulaiman) and a daughter (Sylvia Ratonel) at odds over her wish to be an exotic dancer, exposing the everyday hypocrisy of male sexual double standards. Again, solid performances from Osman and Tan Kheng Hua (as his wife) add heft to a story that needs a little more bite.

Kwek set out to push emotional and cultural buttons, and he has succeeded. There is a squirm factor in seeing kids behave in an inappropriate way, and in watching a liberal Singapore father in agony watching his daughter display her sexuality on stage.

At a time when risk-taking film- making in Singapore means taking chances with style or narrative structure, it is refreshing to see someone push some other boundary.

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