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Stefan Says So: Being Human

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This week alone marks the premiere of two local films going head to head with each other for the box office crown, amid a Hollywood heavyweight with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland probably walking away with the prize.

humanNot to say that I’ve no confidence in either this film or the one starring Fann Wong to achieve success, but like how these two Singapore films share a common element in the Sorry Sorry Dance (in Happy Go Lucky it was mentioned, and here we actually see the dance steps – I have no idea what it is really), both films just so happen to be sorry sorry in terms of production and storyline, although Jack Neo’s latest had something more coherent put together, but somehow the jokes ran dry.

Jack Neo returns to the director’s chair which he had shared with others in his last two feature film outings Love Matters and Where Got Ghost? and this time with Cenosis the slimming specialist being the main sponsor, he had crafted a tale that tells of the rivalry between two slimming centres with the usual social commentary thrown in. This will not be the first time of course, as we remember how I Do, I Do was a nod in the direction of the then SDU to get singles hitched, and for the Yellow Ribbon Project, Jack conceived One More Chance.

And conception turns out to be one of the two main narrative threads in the film, with Mark Lee’s Mai Wei and Yeo Yann Yann’s Zoe being the married couple of 8 years who cannot conceive, despite trying various methods from old wives’ tales to positioning, stopping short of artificial insemination and adoption.

Basically, the character of Zoe exist in the film just so that this narrative can pop up every now and then, which made Yann Yann, the brilliant actress that she is, reduced to a crying, moping fruss-pot who gets stressed each time her ovulating cycle comes along, goading her husband Mai Wei to return home for some action in bed (which we of course will not see, it’s not that kind of film about primal urges a reminder of being human).

The other main narrative thread is of course solely centered on Mai Wei, a sales person from Natural Beauty Slimming Centre, headed by Ng Wei and Brandon Wong, who decided to fire Mai Wei because of his unscrupulous business conduct in raking in sales, sacrificing customer service for profits. This difference in business ethics and philosophy lead them to part ways, with Mai Wei setting up My Way Slimming Centre, in an effort to challenge his previous employer for market share.

To do so he ropes in his brother-in-law Jie (Jeremy Chen) and his wife, and goes all out to apply his business philosophy of taking advantage of gullible customers looking toward weight loss, by making them feel good through flattery, and signing plenty of packages they do not require. It’s a fight between the slimming centres, and the jokes rely pretty much on the competition getting ugly, especially when Mai Wei decides that Tay Yin Yin’s Yao Yao, a clumsy hawker with an unhealthy obsession to be as slim as Lin Chiling, and hence easy prey to become My Way’s spokesperson and image mascot (to slam their rivals).

Knowing how topical and current a Jack Neo film can be, the issues here may at first seem a little dated, with the battle of slimming centres (oh we see that a lot many years back with each coming out with aggressive ads and hard sell), the unscrupulous ways of getting untested products into the market, doctors who double up as vitamin sellers and to put their patients through various meaningless tests just so because that will translate to profits. Here, Jack aims it squarely at unscrupulous merchants who are out to profit through lack of business ethics, and conscience get represented by the Angel/Devil personas as played by Taiwanese celebrity NoNo.

But of course if you read between the lines, there’s this very subtle jab at the authorities in not being competent to do their job, taking the easy way out with interpreting contents at face value, rather than to perform actual tests themselves, akin to not coming down from the ivory tower and proving competence. It’s a tale of supplier morality and consumer gullibility all rolled into one, and the story does reference one of our more famous incidents where slimming pills were the center of a controversy, resulting in a landmark liver transplant from a non-relative. All these are captured in the film as a subplot, which somehow didn’t do wonders from the film in cheapening the story to yet another account and reminder from real life.

But the cast here in their roles, especially Mark Lee, ensured that they try to deflect much of the boredom away as possible. Mark’s leading presence was missed since Ah Long Pte Ltd, and here his return cements his importance in a Jack Neo film, with his usual comedic sidekick now replaced by Jeremy Chan, whose character Jie started off with a lot of spit to get rid of, and got conveniently forgotten as the film wore on since it was a gag running on tired legs. Speaking of gags, I felt the jokes this time round were largely flat, and the usual rapid-fire dialogue (most times in dialect) were sorely missed in the film.

Melodramatic elements in the final act of the film still remains a trademark hard to shake off, and you get that by the bucketloads thanks to Getai giant Wang Lei as Yao Yao’s dad, and a needless subplot involving an alleged kidnapping (a reminder that Kelvin Tong’s Kidnapper premieres in two week’s time)

The J-Team stable of small bit actors also make their appearance here, most notable are the Lao Za Bo who plays a nosey parker preacher of old wives tales, and the Indian chap who became famous playing security guards in at least two of Neo’s previous films. As with any Jack Neo film I’d like to see how he pushes the envelope with the authorities, and in one of his previous films I felt there was a leeway given to impersonations / look-alikes, and now there’s a direct reference to one of our nation’s founding fathers in a line spoken, which unfortunately got unceremoniously dubbed over in Mandarin, which I suspect could have been originally spoken in Hokkien.

Basically, the film tells us that we always have a choice, whether to approach life and its challenges as a bastard with unscrupulous morals, or to do good with the cliche of saving a life that’s worth more than a seven-storey pagoda. One of the nicest touches in the film though, and the real gag I feel, is how the movie ended, which pokes fun at those impatient to leave the hall either because they don’t bother about staying for the credits (well the joke’s on you!) or that they really cannot tolerate another minute and can’t wait for the film to end, never mind the actual ending of the film (well, joke’s backfired on the film then, since the negative word will get around) which to some may feel it’s a major cop out. I was really amused when people really walked out in double quick time when the credits first come on. Maybe because car-parking is expensive.

Traditionally, the Lunar New Year would see a Jack Neo film premiere since that’s when it gets quite a decent box office response, but an unspecified delay as mentioned by the director meant the film’s release was pushed back until now. I’m not sure whether this time round if Being Human can garner the same kind of heartland support, but who knows, and it’ll be interesting to see how it performs. Fans of Jack Neo would be pleased to know this film is very much better than the last two, but clearly still far from what Jack Neo is capable of pulling off.

– A Nutshell Review: Being Human

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