Film Review: ‘Mr Unbelievable’ is a Lively Throwback to a Simpler Time5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
In this spin-off of Chen Tianwen’s viral music video, a middle-aged getai singer attempts fame by adding English lyrics to Hokkien songs.
Director: Ong Kuo Sin
Cast: Chen Tianwen, Liu Lingling, Marcus Chin, Roy Li Feihui, Jaime Teo, Tosh Zhang
Language: Mandarin, Hokkien, English
Runtime: 93 minutes
Earlier this month, Netflix added 28 local films, documentaries, and TV shows to their catalogue in celebration of National Day. One of these titles is Mr Unbelievable, a 2015 film based on the viral song of a similar name.
The whole movie is pretty much built off the song and its old school karaoke aesthetic. We meet our main protagonist, Eric Kwek (Chen Tianwen), an aspiring star despite the years slowly catching up to him. He was raised by a getai master, Lo Man (Marcus Chin), who also taught him how to perform on stage and acts as his adoptive father.
As getai falls out of popularity due to the Speak Mandarin Campaign, he decides to innovate to keep up with the times by creating English lyrics for traditionally Hokkien songs. However, this move does not sit well with his master and his fellow getai performers, causing them to drift apart.
Unfazed, Eric continues to promote his music on his own by performing at coffee shops and open mics at clubs. He even gains a disciple of his own, Lawrence (Tosh Zhang), a die-hard fan who grew up listening to Eric’s music. He also has a girlfriend, Man Li (Liu Lingling), who tries her best to encourage him but her enthusiasm and hopefulness is not always reciprocated.
The one aspect that stood out to me is the way the film takes us through the different eras in Singapore. As we follow Eric’s journey from a teen to a 50-year-old, we see the setting evolve as well, with the fast-paced nature of Singapore being a subtle but important part of the story. After all, Eric’s struggles stem largely from the ageing of his trade and his unsuccessful attempts at modernising his work. The set design reflects this, and it is interesting to see how the environments evolved over the different stages in Eric’s life.
The performances in Mr Unbelievable are pretty straightforward. These tropes are not particularly new and the cast mostly takes on beloved roles familiar to local audiences. These include our side characters played by Liu Lingling and Tosh Zhang. Chen Tianwen as our wig-wearing protagonist is able to make us laugh, cringe, and maybe even shed a tear.
Mr Unbelievable is essentially a film born from a single viral song. The source material alone is loose enough to leave space for interpretation but it doesn’t exactly give the film a strong foothold either. For 93 minutes, the film is able to establish just enough of a story to keep you entertained while also creating interesting arcs for its main and side characters. Crafting a whole narrative out of a single song is a challenging enough feat and I think Mr Unbelievable does its best with what it has.
The film features plenty of hearty moments. Eric is a fascinating protagonist. Despite his goofiness and unlucky streaks, he is good at heart and truly believes in pursuing his music. You almost feel pity for him when he runs into unfortunate situations. There is a sense that emerges between his fellow performers that, deep down inside, they care about one another despite their disagreements.
When the film was first released in 2015, some criticised it for its lack of depth. Although I can’t say if I would or would not have agreed back then, I feel as though 2021 could use more films like these. In the midst of the pandemic and all that is happening around the world, some of us could use something to relieve the fatigue and just have a laugh. Not every film needs to be a serious social commentary, when we want to turn to films for an escape from reality we deserve to be able to achieve that too.
Mr Unbelievable is essentially a comedy film that relies a lot on slapstick. It’s simple and understandable for anyone regardless of age or background. If you’re looking for a light watch that will make you smile to yourself, this is a good pick to consider.
Although the film is not that old, there are a few things that have not aged well. The film relies a lot on making its plus-sized characters the butt of their jokes. It assumes that the audience inherently sees plus-sized people as disgusting in order for the jokes to land. For some people, this might be a little bit uncomfortable to watch or laugh at. I am a firm believer that good comedy does not need to put anyone down in order to be funny.
Mr Unbelievable is an entertaining watch for 93 minutes and an easy way to get a few quick laughs when you are in the mood for some lighter watching. Especially in 2021, perhaps a blast back to a time when maskless people made silly viral videos is exactly what we need to lighten up the mood.
Mr Unbelievable is now streaming on Netflix.