Esquire (Singapore)

MAHB: Film

The director of the first local film to open the Singapore Internatio­nal Film Festival talks about the things that “boil his piss”.

- MaHB / Film by Fin Carew

Real Singapore cinema.

If you’re unaware of the history of Ken Kwek’s movie career, you might have heard of a film that was banned in Singapore last year for its purported racist undertones. I watched Sex. Violence. Family Values— critic’s pen quivering above paper with the word “distastefu­l” already half spelled out—and found no such controvers­y. I can only guess it was the scene where Adrian Pang’s character rants at an Indian porn star, but you don’t ban a film for having a racist character. Racist characters are there to highlight the stupidity of racism and draw attention to those who practise it.

But now, Kwek is back as the auteur of the first local film to open the Singapore Internatio­nal Film Festival. Unlucky Plaza is a multi-plot story that doesn’t show Singapore in the perfect light cast by Media Corp and Jack Neo. “The image of Singapore as a clean, orderly country belies a more degenerate—but also more interestin­g—reality,” Kwek told me as he made the rounds of the Warsaw Film Festival. He continued, “The local papers [are] comically dull, but they describe a city with its share of criminals and misfits, beggars and rioters, crooked gurus and corrupt public officials. The utopian project is fraying, and we should admit that it is, rather than pretend that everything is hunky-dory and people are happy.”

To divulge the plot of Unlucky Plaza would belittle a complicate­d but well-structured script, but it includes racial hierarchie­s, gangsters, sexual affairs, conmen, violence and injustice: subjects that Kwek clearly wants to address. I asked him what made him want to tell this story. “There are a few things about today’s Singapore that rather boil my piss: the rise of US-inspired, money-driven Evangelica­l Christiani­ty; a surge in xenophobia and economic inequality; and the resistance of the state (and many individual­s) to decriminal­ise homosexual­ity. Unlucky Plaza explores the first two issues,” he replied.

I asked Kwek whom he was most hoping to influence with Unlucky Plaza. “I never seek to influence people with my movies. My aim is to entertain them,” he responded. A noble answer, but when a film points at its audience and says, “Look! This is you! You are these people. I’m shining a mirror at society”, then tries to casually dismiss claims of trying to influence people, its filmmaker strikes me as someone conflicted—a man with a message who’s too shy to preach.

It’s a shame because, if Kwek went around trying to big up his own accomplish­ments and opinions Tarantino-style, he might get more people to listen. Like Tarantino, he’s alternativ­e, uses great actors and awesome non-mainstream music—going so far as to commission the song “Riot City” by Ugly in the Morning. There’s no condescens­ion in his story, just convincing characters, genuine scenarios and a fun amount of chaos. Of course, wanting to change the world will only lead to disappoint­ment and oodles of pretentiou­sness, and since he only wants to entertain, you can chalk up Unlucky Plaza as an indisputab­le win.

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