The Torch: Distinguishing features a comparative reading of Eric Khoo’s “Mee Pok Man” and “12 Storeys”
Luckily there already exist numerous reviews and comments on both these films (e.g. here), and that’s a good thing. This being the kind of column it is, you wouldn’t expect me to simply throw in yet another rendition of that familiar tune of “and-this-is-what-it-is-about” no, there will be none of that.
Instead, I would like to invite you to briefly step out of that ceaseless rush of movies going by; this eternally renewed hunt for the latest, the best, the flavour of the day. Let’s for once risk a glance into the rear-view mirror of Singapore’s cinema-bandwagon and reconsider what is constantly piling up behind us â€“ your very own (under)valued film history.
An honoured and internationally acclaimed personality like director/producer Eric Khoo doesn’t call for much of an introduction, and by now, this is not only just so with his fellow countrymen â€“ a fact which bears witness to how relevant a figure he is with the industry’s current resurgence. It is therefore an appropriate time for a revisit, especially one that makes good use of his films’ easy availability. So take to that DVD box-set once more, like I have (kudos to the Â®!), or catch them in some very special venue when there is a rare screening opportunity â€“ whatever the case, just give it a go!
“Mee Pok Man”
It is clearly not a difficult matter to point out the many flaws (technical and dramaturgic) which litter this low-budget production. This fact is not to be overlooked, and has been repeatedly and rightfully identified by critics as just that. Be it scene arrangements that are anything but refined or original, seemingly more suited to some TV drama format than the silver screen; be it characterisation that is too formulaic, not only where that appalling Englishman is concerned; or take the fact that, yes, there is quite a bit of random, near to erratic editing which doesn’t always make it easy to see the inner logic of â€“ all these objections are justified, but somehow, and much to my own surprise, it doesn’t make for a spoilt movie, quite the contrary.
On re-viewing this film, one has to acknowledge how the clichÃ© can be very telling indeed, and come pretty close to the truth at that. One has to admit that the low-key approach to drama, which concentrates on a parable-like observation of longing, renders “Mee Pok Man” astonishingly timeless. It elevates the telling almost to archetypical proportions, in a story that sets the protagonists on a collision course with reality, each their own and all of them fatally irreversible â€“ only marginally differentiated to the degree of clarity of foresight that has the predictable crash foreshadowed in their minds. I vividly remember how the sparse lighting resources created an irresistible lure and a look that is mesmerising. It lends a visual resonance to some of the underlying dark comedy, which will not fail to draw you in.
Though it is in the notes how the ending â€“ it’s dragging decomposition â€“ is a tad morbid and appears hardly acceptable to contemporary viewers (visually that is), the inner logic that brings it on is undoubtedly as cogent as it is powerful and gripping. Any emotional arc where empathy for the lead role eventually gives way to horrified alienation is an eye-opening experience. And such it is with this feature’s pathetic finale, exposing what is rotten and not letting you get away with a simple answer as to why, or whether there ever was a way out, some viable alternative at hand for the Mee Pok Man to end up differently.
Admittedly, in some awkward moments, the whole film teeters on the brink of losing it to improbable comic, as it veers a bit too often into the perimeter of alleged mainstream entertainment, which doesnâ€™t do it much good. All this, however, is convincingly counterbalanced by Joe Ng’s rock-solid performance, his admirable capacity to render his part three-dimensional, and fully human â€“ if only more ostensibly challenged than your regular self. So it is that this early 1995 film still has enough substance to it to make it into a valid and lasting piece of cinema, groundbreaking in many ways, markedly so for all which it didn’t achieve to realise fully, thus inciting many others to take filmmaking one step further from where this one left off. Such is the quality of true pioneers.
Compared to “Mee Pok Man” this one comes with a considerably higher level of cinematic sophistication, certainly more (day)light, and with another slightly different take on the themes of love and longing. With a very limited number of days to shoot and a cast comprising of mostly first-time actors, “12 Storeys” classifies almost as a chamber piece of urban paranoia, much more specifically Singaporean in theme than “Mee Pok Man” as it puts the petty bourgeois on unforgiving display in its peculiar predicament of self-hatred and ambition.
In terms of narrative structure, the episodic interweaving of three separate strands is certainly more ambitious in its undertaking to make a statement about the status quo of authority interference, and the social as well as elementary human aspects of HDB atomisation in present day Singapore. Here is a kind of fractured family portrait, and we are thankfully spared the standard (and very TV-compatible) set of generational coherence with all members of that pathologically interdependent unity (and their respective problems) neatly seated around the dining room table, while leaving just enough space for the camera to take up position among them (really, a too well-known routine). No, the composition as such is reasonably well executed, if not too evenly balanced.
On the other hand, there are repeated instances of decidedly over-the-top acting; dialogue drama without any trace of development, any arc of emotional intensity or suspense build-up, which is dragging and bears on the viewer, making it hard to follow as one level of engagement is held or drawn out beyond the point where the argument has been made sufficiently. Whereas the old lady’s ranting, in its ongoing monotone, has a very fitting functional value precisely in its maddening capacity. Again, “12 Storeys” is by no means a flawless production, especially when thinking of the story revolving around the topic of “imported wives” from mainland China, who find themselves at odds with expectations given the state of their affairs in real life. This whole semi-saga of bleak post-hymeneal frustration is just too farcical â€“ with or without Jack Neo’s performance and those false teeth.
However, what remains in terms of real achievement that can and should be attributed to this one feature of 1997 is not little. One will always remember this parentally overshadowed nucleus family as a violently potent study in internalisation processes, mounting pressures (not least sexual), the archetypical nanny psyche carried to an urban extreme â€“ so very Singaporean. Those two younger siblings, brother and sister in their interaction, in their speech patterns and adolescent mannerisms, are so real â€“ it would have been interesting to see more. As far as convincing visual leitmotifs go, the soul rebound and revisiting spirits, the evocation of haunted lives in “Shier Lou” is memorable â€“ except the general pacing could have been tighter to maximise intensity.
All in all it seems to me as if Eric Khoo himself felt like unfinished business with this episode format of narrative structure when some eight years later he returned to the same composition scheme and mastered it more fully this time with “Be With Me”. In many respects this last feature film of his displays a directorial craft that is really confident in character study and emotional build-up. Gone are some of the former oddities of ill-proportioned caricature which took more away from the films’ impact than they added to the entertainment value (which might have been the true reason for having them in the first place).
I have been reminded many times how it was “12 Storeys” more than any other film that incited many a filmmaker of my generation in Singapore to venture into the business, so there can be no overestimating the kind of influence this one film had; although to me “Mee Pok Man” comes out the more memorable film of the two. In retrospect it seems fair to say that Eric Khoo only came into the full of his craft with “Be With Me”, especially where character drawing and a balanced portrayal of human dilemmas is concerned. That one can in many ways be read as an extension of lines formerly begun. Considering the outcome, we have to be real thankful for the audacity of the folks who dared revisiting a tried format, to reissue what turned out to be an intimate encounter with human emotions of remarkable quality. I certainly wish for more!
On a final note, I wouldn’t call Eric Khoo an innovator in any strictly cinematic sense of the word. What he has earned lasting credit for however, is his serving as a gate opener to pretty much everything that has followed in his footsteps over the past ten years in terms of independent filmmaking in Singapore. Where “Mee Pok Man” explores the abysmally self-destructive in our passions’ hidden counter-life and finds it rather tentatively in his protagonist’s existence at the fringes, he demonstrated that making movies was possible in Singapore.
Where “12 Storeys” addresses similar themes of how that best loved enemy within us executes his devilish reigns to haunt and spoil our lives, he showed that it was possible to meaningfully address Singaporean issues in film. And there, his third feature, “Be With Me” of 2005 picked up and took all this to another more mature level, and in doing so proved for good that Singapore films can rank with the best in world cinema indeed.
Over time, and with just three feature films to his belt, Eric Khoo has almost by accident created a legacy for himself â€“ and Singaporean film as a whole, leading the way for others to follow and making a crucial commitment to quality and originality, an example that is inspiring rather than imposing.