On the surface, Lang Tong contains the ingredients of a provocative, taboo-breaking Singapore film. This revenge-horror flick steeps itself in copious amounts of no-holds-barred sex, nudity, and violence, so at first it creates the illusion of being a vaguely daring film, at least by Singapore’s conservative standards. But you soon start wondering what all the sex and nudity is for. By the film’s end, it reveals itself to be hollow and nihilistic, its R21 content less for purposeful challenging of social norms than for opportunistic titillation.
The film is local director Sam Loh’s second feature outing, after 2004’s Outsiders, which was supposed to air in that year’s edition of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), but was pulled because Loh did not agree to screen it with cuts. But second time’s the charm for him, because Lang Tong was passed uncut, and made its world debut at 2014’s SGIFF.
Partly inspired by Takashi Miike’s Audition, Lang Tong follows the sordid journey of Zach (William Lawandi), a remorseless serial womaniser and con man, who gets women to fall in love with him and then proceeds to scam them of their money.
He eventually meets his match in Li Ling (Vivienne Tseng), an alluring and successful woman who makes a wicked bowl of pork rib soup. (Lang Tong means nice soup in Cantonese.) Things take an unexpected turn when Zach meets Li Ling’s stunning younger sister Li Er (Angeline Yap), whose charm he is smitten by, and they begin an affair behind Li Ling’s back. Soon, tensions between both sisters escalate, and Li Er convinces Zach to help murder her older sister, whom she blames for causing her mother’s death. Things are, however, not so simple.
Loh has claimed that Takashi Miike’s Audition is a source of inspiration for his sophomore feature, but Lang Tong shares only the most superficial elements with the Japanese horror-mystery film. There are some visual references to the former, including a scene in which one of the characters uses a tube and a needle to inject poison into someone else. There’s also the idea of the femme fatale, who uses her wiles to exact revenge on the man who has wronged her.
But that’s where the similarities end. Lang Tong tries to sound a warning against treating women like playthings, but it comes across as hypocritical; over the course of the film, several gratuitous sex scenes, in which female nudity is prominent, basically invite us to be voyeurs and objectify the female body. In a particularly appalling sex scene, the camera gradually tracks in on a couple having sex, as if it was a pervert slowly creeping up on them. Here, the camera serves the role of a lecher – you can practically hear it licking its lips.
Loh has said the sex scenes are integral to the story, but only one particular one serves any discernible function: an early one in which a drunk Zach forcibly has sex with a woman. That scene offers a glimpse into his violent, sexist (and even sociopathic) tendencies. Otherwise, the other sex scenes fulfill little purpose but to titillate.
Besides that, there are other details that complicate the sexual politics of the film in disastrous ways. [Spoiler alert!] At the end, when we realize that two female characters in the film are actually lovers, and not how they previously claimed they were related, I was smacking my head in exasperation. As if the film doesn’t already fetishize gay or bisexual women enough, it also ends up sending the message that lesbians are conniving, vengeful man-haters.
These boo-boos might not have completely ruined the film had Lang Tong actually worked as mildly diverting entertainment, but alas. Cringe-worthy dialogue and poor writing constantly took me out of the film.
[Spoiler alert!] If asked by a friend to murder someone else, any sane person would probably reply “ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME?” Not our intrepid protagonist Zach. At one point, when Li Er tells Zach to kill her sister, he could only muster up a weak protest, something along the lines of “but she’s your sister”. Because killing someone who is not her sister is totally fine? Another example of characters behaving in unrecognizable ways: when Zach tells his friend about Li Er’s scheme to kill her sister, Zach’s friend goads him on. Which non-sociopathic person would do that?
If the film wasn’t supposed to reflect reality, but function as a metaphor of sorts, or as a cautionary tale against infidelity or sexism, these faults might be more easily overlooked. But Lang Tong doesn’t succeed in striking up a fluid, dream-like, free-floating tone/structure, unlike Miike’s Audition – and thus every implausible line of dialogue becomes all the more distracting.
I was really rooting for Lang Tong to succeed, seeing as how Loh took a risk and made a local film that is different, one that strays away from the standard heartland drama/comedy formula. But as a wise man once said, sometimes different isn’t always better.
Summary: Cringe-worthy dialogue and blatantly exploitative sex scenes cripple Lang Tong’s effectiveness.
RATING: 2 out of 5 stars