Director: Ken Kwek
Cast: Jeffrey Quizon, Judee Tan, Adrian Pang, Shane Mardjuki, Guo Liang, Janice Koh, Pam Oei
Run Time: 122 mins
Opens: 16 April 2015
Rating: M18 (Coarse Language)
If this were Hollywood, the news of a latest hostage movie would be quickly dismissed for more uncommon news. After all, thrillers come and go far too frequently. But this is Singapore, with our notoriously strict moral guidelines and censorships that have given local director Ken Kwek a problem or two in the past. Hence the very prospect of a Singaporean hostage thriller – one that meddles with social satire, politics and racial issues – is something out of the ordinary for us. With far too many shallow local films out there that comfortably cross the local censorship, the thematic scope and ambition of Kwek’s Unlucky Plaza is a refreshing addition to the local movie scene, and one that is to be commended.
The film is technically adventurous for a local production, telling the story of a local hostage situation from many fronts. We have a news interview, where the key characters are shown to be alive and well, reflecting on what has happened – a questionable decision as it somewhat spoils the resolution for the audience. On the other hand, the plot follows the back story leading up to the climactic hostage situation, where Onassis, a Filipino restaurant owner in Lucky Plaza (a local mall, famous for its popularity with foreigners, which the film’s title is derived from) becomes desperate with financial difficulties and other problems that the big city creates. As a single father, he wants to give his son a good future, and believes that wealth is everything. He exemplifies the kind of first world poverty that is real, beneath the mask of our glistening city that is represented by Terrence Chia and his wife, Michelle. The couple is rich and spoilt, never content with what they have, with Terrence borrowing big from syndicate loan sharks, leaving Michelle dissatisfied with their marriage, sleeping with other men, such as an adulterous clergyman. In an attempt to flee from Terrence, Michelle resorts to scamming Onassis during a chance meeting in a bar, escalating matters beyond imagination. Everyone in the film is in some sort of debt, be it emotional, financial or spiritual, and the plot explores what they do out of it.
Onassis’ answer to his problems is retribution. In one of the most captivating set pieces that Unlucky Plaza has to offer, Onassis enters the extravagant home of the Chias after the scam, only to realise their unfathomable wealth. Conveyed brilliantly by Filipino actor Epi Quizon, his look of utter disbelief highlights the thoughtless exploitation of the Chias, and compels him into his “accidental” hostage case. Coincidently, everyone related to the story is localized in the house, and it soon grows into a police situation that rocks the nation (though rather unconvincingly).
This is where Unlucky Plaza runs out of luck. Half of the film is spent on backstory leading up to the event, that consists of several genuinely interesting story arcs, including Michelle’s affair and of course, Onassis’ descent into hopelessness. The other weaker narrative arcs deal with stale marriages and debt and other themes that have been done and dusted in the plenty of local soap operas and the beloved Jack Neo movies in recent memory. With the film’s spoiler-filled present day interviews constantly reminding us of the hostage climax of the film, most of the sluggish opening hour becomes a retreading of local issues we have become all to familiar with. Just kidnap someone already!
The interesting arcs such as the love affair with a clergyman highlight Kwek’s more transgressive endeavours in his latest film. Wealth has made Michelle’s marriage with Terrence flat, with every conversation relating to money and sales, sidelining true empathy or affection. The relationship with the pastor offers everything Michelle desires – sex and a real partner who can wholeheartedly care for her, but of course, is totally inappropriate as he constantly reminds her of his responsibility to the church. Their story arc is a gritty perspective that blends in religion and lust – a rare combination in Singaporean cinema.
By far however, it is the central story of Onassis that compels us and draws our sympathies. Having been wronged too many times and pushed to the edge of survival in the cruel city, he insists, “They made me do it… I had no choice”. Yet the moral themes and social commentary fall flat when the film lingers too long in its hostage drama, resulting in an ironic soap opera-like final act, instead of the gritty commentary of the Singapore situation that it set out to be. It far too often succumbs to the usual conventions that Singaporeans just cannot resist – in-your-face moral lessons with a series of apologies, forced melodrama and the dreaded happily ever after, which after all the commotion and crimes committed, seems unacceptable.
Amidst the missteps of the film, Unlucky Plaza is still perhaps the most memorable movie to have come out of Singapore since Anthony Chen’s remarkable Ilo Ilo. Fantastic performances from Quizon, Adrian Pang, and Judee Tan form the backbone of Kwek’s ballsy production, anchored with a personal voice that is too often unheard in local productions these days, like Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men, drowned in political propaganda. It is a film that dares to speak up about the rich-poor divide and raise very relevant issues about Singapore’s obsession with the worldly and the social problems it leads to. A little too melodramatic for this critic’s tastes, but overall, Unlucky Plaza is a solid film that reinforces the heights that the Singapore film industry can aspire to reach.
Summary: While a little too far fetched and at times unbelievable, the ambitious “Unlucky Plaza” is still a solid film that promises a bright future for local cinema.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars