Film Review: My Magic

BOTTOM LINE: Is the ambivalent dramatization of a magician's pain endurance "rough magic" or freak show?

Eric Khoo's "My Magic", Singapore's historic first entry to Cannes Competition, is interesting for casting Tamils (a minority in his country) in lead roles. It could have been a simple yet heartbreaking story about a father-son relationship transformed by magic. What we get, however, is a one-trick pony in the form of real-life magician Bosco Francis, around whose performances Khoo conjures a threadbare plot, "schadenfreude" coated in sentimentality and a cliched magical-realist dimension.

Wild Bunch, which is handling international sales, will muster Khoo's auteur reputation to secure festival and arthouse slots. Since the film appears rushed and improvised on all technical fronts, even if it gets any theatrical release, big screen projection may show up its aesthetic quality to unflattering effect.

Khoo probably had the success formula of 2005 Director's Fortnight entry "Be With Me" in mind when he and co-scriptwriter Wong Kim-hoh spun a story around a real person with an unusual background. But the results are markedly different because in "Be With Me" Theresa Chen simply plays herself with dignity, while Francis, assigned a scripted role, is made to do tricks like a circus animal.

Theresa's life as dramatized onscreen is inspirational. Francis' fictional life as an alcoholic single-father risking his life to win back the respect of his son (Jathishweran), with its sketchy back story, is an overlong and grueling cycle of drinking bouts, abuse and self-loathing -- nothing that "Leaving Las Vegas" hasn't shown with greater despondency or sensitivity.

Buying into its pathos requires professional acting, more character interaction (instead of arty monologues) and some realistic social context. Neither the amateur leads nor the director-screenwriters are up to it. Francis' budding friendship with an Indian prostitute could have taken the story somewhere, but the subplot disappears as inexplicably as it comes.

Francis' live acts, which run the gamut from chewing glass to swallowing razor blades to self-impalement, may excite voyeuristic wonder among those with a coliseum-spectator mentality. But further into the story, his "magic" is thrust aside and he is just a human sandbag paid to endure harrowing torture by a gangster-pervert. Closeups of body parts being hurt reveal a prurient fascination with injury and sadomasochism more nakedly expressed in Khoo's earlier shorts, "Pain" and "Mee Pok Man."

Zhao Wei Films/Infinite Frameworks
Cast: Bosco Francis, Jathishweran, Seet Keng-yew, Jason Lim
Writer-director: Eric Khoo.
Screenwriter: Wong Kim-hoh.
Executive producers: James Toh, Jacqueline Khoo, Mike Wiluan
Producers: Tan Fong-cheng, Wong Kim-hoh, Freddie Yeo, Gary Goh.
Director of photography: Adrian Tan.
Art director: Jeremy Chua.
Music: Kevin Mathews, Christopher Khoo.
Editors: Siva Chandran, Lionel Chok.
Sales: Wild Bunch.
No rating, 72 minutes.