In a nutshell
An Australian photojournalist gets more than the story she bargained for, when she tracks an enigmatic medium whose psychic powers and spiritual understanding seem real.
If Adrian Lim had an American Father
When Medium Rare was made and released in 1991, it brought with it the excitement of a national novelty on this small island. Despite its dismal takings at the box office (supposedly $130,000), the film was still described years later in an Asiaweek article as the first sign of a “Renaissance time” for Singapore’s film industry.
Okay, so it was the first English film to be shot entirely in Singapore since 1978’s They Call Her: Cleopatra Wong. It was also almost entirely financed by beauty pageant organiser Errol Pang (who had a cameo as a doctor — ah, a poetic mirroring of Dr Woffles Wu’s own big screen venture this year!), and it starred Singapore’s Margaret “I’ll crush you like a cockroach” Chan. More importantly, it rode on the shocking crimes of Toa Payoh;s medium-murderer Adrian Lim.
Seeing the Economic Development Board (EDB) listed in the film’s credits, I guess the film must have been one of EDB’s first fruits when it started to grow some kind of a media industry in the late 1980s. Yet the film has an uneasy claim on being the first Singapore film of our cinematic “Å“revival”.
After all, its director was British, both leads Dore Kraus and Brenda Bakke were American, and the film’s post-production was done in Australia. We even encounter the charismatic medium Daniel (whose father, we are told, was American and his mother Singaporean) literally through the lenses of a blonde Australian photojournalist.
But Medium Rare shares at least one obsession with many later Singapore films: uncovering the grit and grime of clean, efficient Singapore — our romance with low-IQ mee pok sellers, motorcycling ah bengs, drugged out delinquents, disgruntled taxi-drivers Ã¢â‚¬¦ Indeed, when the photojournalist meets the medium at a Hindu temple, she declares that her goal is to find out how the messy world of spirits and mediums could exist in this efficient metropolis.
Well, I’m not sure if she did, and I don’t think the audiences would, either. Unless the answer was that all mediums in Singapore had the bronze, muscular body of Dore Kraus, had practices located in tastefully furnished colonial black-and-white bungalows, and ate meals served by a costumed maid.
Only for Margaret Chan’s character did the answer seemed obvious: that he offered her an escape from the TCS-drama world of a drunk, violent stepfather and money-minded gambler mother. Otherwise, the film does not even start to scratch the surface of the efficient metropolis and its relationship to the world of spirits and faith or deception and desperation. It was comfortable instead with cliches.
To be fair, finding an answer was maybe not the intent of the filmmakers. That would be another film to make.
So if you watched Medium Rare as a very simple horror thriller instead, you could consider it entertaining. The pace was reasonable and the script kept up an element of mystery and anticipation as you waited for that facade of the eloquent, guru-like and perfectly dressed (or undressed) medium to crack. When it did, you would finally have your display of gore and supernaturalism.
Besides, regardless of whether the comedy was deliberate, the film does have its comic moments: a character exploring Daniel’s bungalow with a torchlight in broad daylight; a tourist guide performing his spiel about the Merlion; Dore Kraus and Margaret Chan’s characters falling into bed (and out of frame, naturally) after they consume a glass of her blood; a bargirl pouting because the medium was too distracted to give her the monthly “flower bath” (i.e. sex); the film’s ending scenes featuring an indefatigable traffic policeman and a horror flick standard; and, of course, the film’s title.
For me, the film was worth watching and even enjoyable mostly as a kind of documentary. There are glimpses of Chinatown and Telok Ayer before their present makeover, and shots of the Singapore skyline looking less busy. There are also the dated high-waisted fashion looks and hotel interiors.
As a bonus, other than Margaret Chan and Rani Moorthy, watch out for the bit parts by Beatrice Chia and Neo Swee Lin! The experience felt strange because 1991 does not seem that long ago Ã¢â‚¬” but it is. 15 years is a long time for an island in pursuit of change itself. Watching Medium Rare in 2006 perhaps betrays one more romance for clean, efficient Singapore besides that of its “underbelly”, grit and grime — that other persistent romance, nostalgia.
Directed by Arthur Smith
Produced by Graham Moore
Released in December 1991
Running time: 91 minutes
Screened at Cine.SG