Film Review: ‘Avatar’ Is So Delightfully Over-the-Top That It Should Be a Singaporean Cult Classic5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
In the near future in the Asian city-state Sintawan, everyone’s identity is recorded in the vast CyberLink. The only way around this is using illegal simulated identity implants (sims). A young bounty hunter who makes her living tracking sims, finds herself the unlikely ally of a police detective who suspects the CyberLink is being perverted for an insidious and deadly purpose.
Director: Kuo Jian Hong
Cast: Genevieve O’Reilly, Wang Luoyong, Lim Kay Siu, David Warner, Joan Chen
Runtime: 98 minutes
No, this is not the animated East Asian-inspired series Avatar. Nor is it the smurfified version of Avatar set in an entirely different planet. This is Singapore’s first ever sci-fi film, Avatar 《流放化身》, released in 2004 and directed by Kuo Jian Hong, written by Christopher Hatton.
And it is my earnest, most genuine belief that this film deserves a lot more hype and traction. Not because it is a well-made film but because of how entertaining it is.
The film is set in 2019 and in a futuristic alternate universe of Singapore called Sintawan. In this country, it is mandatory for all citizens to have a microchip implanted in them for various purposes, such as to record their identities in cyberspace, or very simply, as a replacement for EZ-Link cards. There is, however, a way to circumvent it – to use fake chips called Simulated Identity Implants, otherwise known as SIMs. Criminals often use SIMs to escape detection from the system.
And it is the job of a bounty hunter, Dash MacKenzie (Genevieve O’Reilly), to capture such criminals. One day, Dash is hired by a few megacorporations to track down a SIM criminal called Edward Chan. Tagging along very reluctantly with her is police detective Victor Huang (Wang Luoyong). Unbeknownst to them, they are getting involved in a deadly game where five megacorporations are abusing the cyberworld for their personal entertainment.
If this premise sounds vaguely similar to The Matrix, you’re right in noticing that. In fact, the film doesn’t really hide the fact that it’s inspired by The Matrix. It borrows the famous special effect of digital rain, and it addresses similar issues, such as the blurring of cyberspace with reality and the ethics of abusing cyberspace.
Fortunately, that’s where the similarities end. Because this film is uniquely Singaporean, and it should stay that way. Not many sci-fi films are set in Singapore, so it feels quite refreshing seeing not only a version of Singapore that is technologically advanced, but also familiar Singaporean sites. We see, for instance, Victor chasing criminals in a North-South line MRT station. Our beloved MRTs are so advanced now that their windows can broadcast news, looking like television screens. Dash also tries to track down Edward, hilariously enough, in an infamous Singaporean hotel chain.
But as the film progresses, the worldbuilding becomes a lot more inconsistent and sloppier. Sintawan uses cutting-edge technology, but when Dash and Victor escape their enemies, they use trains to escape? Imagine an action-packed chase scene which ends anticlimactically with both of them rushing into the MRT, then waiting stoically to reach the next station. The energy of the sequence just deflates. Where are my futuristic cars for gripping chase scenes? Also, when they attempt to cross the waters over to another island near Singapore, they actually ride on a sampan.
And don’t get me started on the special effects. But you know what? I’ll take it. The gimmicky special effects sort of add flavour to what is already a messily-produced film. But it’s not altogether surprising that the worldbuilding is sloppy. Sci-fi films are difficult to produce due to budgetary reasons, so perhaps the film made do with what it had. In the end, these inconsistent elements add up to become an amusing film, funny for its unbelievability.
This unbelievability carries over to what I believe is the best part about this film – the costume designs. This alternate universe of Singapore is chock-full of Chinese mythology, symbolisms, and images. Madame Ong (Joan Chen), who is the leader of one of the megacorporations, wears an elaborate headpiece that evokes the Empress Dowager figure. Julius (Lim Kay Siu), who is Dash’s confidante and advisor, is costumed like a high-tech Buddha with wires sticking out of his bald head while wearing some vaguely Buddhist clothes.
The designs are so wonderfully campy and over-the-top that it almost feels like the film is hard selling Chinese culture. Of course, it is also this surplus of Chinese images which makes the worldbuilding even sloppier. The exoticisation of Chinese, while simultaneously ignoring other ethnic cultures, left quite a bad taste in my mouth.
There are many unrealistic and far-fetched ideas in Avatar, with the worldbuilding being my biggest gripe. But I can’t deny how enjoyable watching the film was. Not only because the film turned out to be ironically entertaining when viewed from the year 2021, but also because the film timestamped an era of Singapore that is long gone. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a rubbish bin in an MRT station. SAF army personnel also appear in the film, wearing the pre-pixelated uniform design that had wavy-ish patterns.
Avatar is a must-watch for any fans of ‘So Bad, It’s Good’ films. I’m definitely down for a yearly rewatch of this film as a Singaporean cult classic if the chance comes.
Avatar is now showing as part of Asian Film Archive’s State of Motion film lineup. For more information on the film or the programme, click here.