'Unlucky Plaza': Singapore Review

Sentimentality and small-screen aesthetics turn social critique into soap opera.

A debt-ridden restauranteur experiences a cleaver-wielding, gun-toting afternoon in Singaporean enfant terrible Ken Kwek's social satire

Among the constant stream of in-jokes driving hostage drama Unlucky Plaza, one stands out. As the hapless and accidental captor Onassis (Epy Quizon) demands the police get him a helicopter, his captive Sky (Terence Chia) smirks and says: "Get real - this is Singapore, not the bloody Philippines. We don't do negotiation here, we won't turn a hostage situation into some fucking soap opera, alright?"

It remains to be seen whether Singaporean policemen will do that in real life - but that's what director Ken Kwek has done with his follow-up to his controversial and censored debut Sex.Violence.FamilyValues. For its myriad linguistic, moral and cultural transgressions previously unseen in Singaporean cinema - there's swearing galore, a clergyman receiving oral sex and (metaphorically and literally) riotous scenes about racism in a multicultural country, Unlucky Plaza is unfortunately hampered by a sentimental narrative conveyed with small-screen aesthetics.

Just as his 2013 omnibus-satire has outgrown its origins to become an establishment-defying cause celebre, Kwek's latest (and first full-length) feature has again become a case of its reputation preceding its actual presence. Having cleared the city-state's notoriously strict film censorship board to make its bow as Singapore International Film Festival's curtain-raiser, Unlucky Plaza - which had its world premiere in September in Toronto - will secure local supporters aplenty for its audacious effort in exploring long-suppressed social schisms which have exploded into many a full-blown crisis over the past few years.

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The title of Kwek's film, however, perhaps speaks volumes about its prospective reach. Unlucky Plaza is wordplay revolving around the originally good-fortune-sounding name of the downtown shopping arcade in which protagonist Onassis' failing restaurant is located; that this wordplay would hardly register with audiences from outside Singapore reflects the film's limited appeal beyond domestic shores. Consider this a reaction against globalization then: Kwek's film is the latest in a line of recent Asian indie productions dressing its social critique with a thoroughly localized code, such as Taiwan's Meeting Dr. Sun (which is also screening in the Singapore festival) or Hong Kong's The Midnight After.

Domestically-oriented as Unlucky Plaza's humor might be, the Cambridge-educated Kwek hasn't shied away from drawing obvious influences from distant shores. The specter of Dog Day Afternoon looms large here, as the central component revolves around an insolvent outsider's flailing attempt to confront the law, contain his hostages and come to terms with how his (accidental) act has spiraled into a media circus and social upheaval beyond his wildest imagination. There's also a nod to Magnolia: like Tom Cruise's character, Sky is a motivational speaker - he markets a "wealth paradigm" motored by a "money blueprint" - while the multiple characters are lined up in a sequence of dolly shots of them and soundtracked by a song.

Kwek seems to have made a bold move by introducing every character as inherently flawed. Apart from Onassis the feckless, financially struggling single father and Sky, an all-pretend con-artist who's equally debt-ridden, there's Sky's schoolteacher wife Michelle (Judee Tan), the femme fatale trying to finance her escape from the stale marriage by seducing her pastor (Shane Mardjuki) and then leading Onassis into a rental scam. Then again, as the film progresses, everyone - including Onassis' erstwhile cruel landlady, whose threat of eviction kickstarted all the mayhem - reconciles themselves with their consciences and their estranged family, friends and foes.

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Strangely for a hostage-taking thriller, this descent into sentimentality and happy endings is actually foretold. The film begins with Onassis, Michelle and Sky very much healthy and alive and being interviewed on live television (by talk show host Anita Kapoor, playing a version of herself) about their escapade - conversations which punctuate the storytelling throughout and thus deprive the film from getting some tension and traction going. What Unlucky Plaza needs is plentiful of simple realism and grit, rather than self-reflexivity and messed-up timelines; the artifice takes the punch out of a premise which could have brutally exposed the inherent problems bubbling beneath Singapore's hectic but harmonious veneer.

Kwek's critical view of his home country is certainly there, burning brightly, but Unlucky Plaza should be considered a small step for a promising socially-conscious filmmaker trying to connect his fury with the right kind of art. 

Venue: Singapore International Film Festival (Opening film)

Production companies: Kaya Toast Pictures, in a presentation by Beaucoup Film

Cast: Epy Quizon, Adrian Pang, Judee Tan, Shane Mardjuki

Director: Ken Kwek

Screenwriter: Ken Kwek

Producers: Ken Kwek, Kat Goh, Leon Tong

Executive producers: Kuah Eng Hua, Matlock Stone, Lincoln Chan

Director of photography: Michael Zaw

Art director: Tommy Chan

Editor: Olly Stothert

Casting Directors: Michaela Pereira, J. Rajkumar

Music: Joe Ng, Ting Si Hao

International Sales: Media Luna

In English, Filipino and Mandarin

 

No rating; 122 minutes

 

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