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SINdie: The High Cost of Living

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A title that belies a rich cross-stitched fabric of relationships – that’s The High Cost of Living. It was easy to think that this movie might be about the pressures of living a 5Cs-obssessed Singapore. But my second brush with it proved not. I was watching a dark and action-packed trailer while buying popcorn at The Grand Cathay.

The High Cost of Living is a daring attempt to tailor a genre familiar to Hollywood or Hong Kong studios in the 80s/90s to the Singapore context – action, crime. Short of explosions and sexy guns, what kind of steam could possibly cook up in law-abiding, straight-laced Singapore? The answer for Leonard, the Director, lies in human relationships

being the anchor of the drama. The focus on the complexity of the human condition really made me forget that in a film that is supposed to be dotted with visual pyrotechnics, there was only one explosion and plenty of meek-sounding gunshots.

The High Cost of Living follows 2 main characters on their treacherous journey to kill. In fact, it’s a paying job. One is geeky, bespectacled Roy who looks less the professional as he lacks the muscle and is always dressed like the boy the next door. The other is (I forgot the name but played by Timothy Nga), let’s call him Tim, a sturdy, controlled looking man, dressed like a police officer and backed by a visible organisation (with cool gadgets). Roy is often sheepish but when he does his job, he does it with guts. He is hired to run after a few targets while trying to keep his girlfriend in the dark. He’s got a cosmetologist (applies make up to dead people) girlfriend who maintains her patience with his occasional disappearing acts. Hence, the moral dilemma of Roy. Tim, also doing the same but under a government-linked organisation (like a legitimate assassin) also faces the pressure of keeping up with the people in his life, like his demanding wife. How are they related? One is running the other though the rule of the game is the same – kill.

While we’ve already got 2 complicated enough characters, Leonard somehow manages to squeeze in a handful more characters without overcrowding the drama. And every character has a life of its own, owing, I think, to the sensitive and mature direction as well as the spot on-casting. Roy girlfriend seems like a perfectionist (from her on-work and off-work behaviour). However, upon discovering Roy’s job, she is surprisingly accommodating and gets her priorities right – helping Roy out of the deep end. Tim’s wife (played by a short-haired Yeo Yann Yann), estranged by her husband’s busy schedule, succumbs to temptation to chance encounter with Aloysius, a sexually active young man. Yet, she never really falls into a stereotype of a `desperate housewife’. She has her moments of guilt and retraction. Even the amorous Aloysius surprises with moments of more responsible behaviour.

With characters that were layered, the intertwining of their fates in the plot became very interesting. Literally, one thing leads to another (credit going to Leonard’s scriptwriter). Tim’s absence from his marital life leads his wife to become adulterous. The adultery leads to revenge when Aloysius’ girlfriend finds out. Roy gets an assignment to hit Aloysius but decides to save his life. This to him being chased by gangsters. And through a web of relationships, they find themselves in Tim’s home towards the end. What a brilliant moment I thought for it began to capture and stir my imagination.

It seems the focus on human behaviour and relationships made me forget the explosion or rather the lack of it. However, on closer analysis, the director did pay attention to the technical must-haves of the genre. In the close ups, the guns passed the test. Even the tracking equipment used by the govt team looked credible. I would say the sole giveaway was the explosion. Singapore still has a long way to go in terms of CGI. Either that or the meagre budget weighed on production possibilities.

It is difficult to measure the success of this film. If we were going strictly by the genre, it needs to be more `bomb’-bastic. If we were going by box-office success, it need better lighting. If we are going by originality in the Singapore context, it has succeeded tremendously. Like what Leonard mentioned at the Talkback Session at Sinema Old School, if there was a Singapore equivalent of a crime movie (that it would honest to the Singapore social climate), it would look like this – local characters in locally specific issues, acting against the backdrop of efficient, law-abiding (and an increasingly expensive) Singapore.

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