JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Mee Pok Man
visual analysis:

3. The necrophilia scenes: After Bunny dies, Mee Pok Man keeps her body in his apartment...

...Mee Pok Man holds the dead Bunny in hisarms and grieves. Prior to this they had sex during which Bunny died. We then see a cutaway of Bunny’s brother’s bedroom where the brother is reading her diary, narrated in voice over. Various shots of Mee Pok Man in his apartment follow...

...Some time later he makes an offering of food to the barely visible dead Bunny, whose arm can be seen on the table...

...He’s changed his clothes, which indicates the passing of more time, as does the difference in the color of Bunny’s hand...

...He strokes her hair and it falls off her scalp...

... Mee Pok Man starts telling Bunny about his childhood and his experience with school bullies. There is a series of cutaways to black and white photos of him as a child...

... His baby picture. He says to her, “They [the bullies] are always making fun of me and call me an idiot...

...We hear Mee Pok Man’s sorrowful cries and the image is framed tighter. The camera then pans quietly to the left to emphasize emotional intensity. This is followed by a series of cutaways that show more childhood photos of the mee pok man, who from time to time is seen watching TV.

 

Unorthodoxies of
Eric Khoo’s early films

Singapore has often been an object of envy. For its affluence, its discipline, its skilled workforce, its immaculate streets. The Lion City prides itself on these qualities... The metropolis built on high tech and high finance dreams of becoming a Nanyang New York, a Cannes-on-the-South China Sea. Of becoming “the regional hub of the arts.”[60]

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Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys rejected the authorized image of Singapore—wholesome, clean, upgraded and upwardly mobile—to show its grittier side”[61]

A cultural practitioner of sorts, Eric Khoo is the son of hotelier Khoo Teik Puat and now the father of four boys. Together with his wife, Jacqueline Khoo, he operates Zhao Wei Films (named after their first son) from the family’s crown-jewel edifice, the Goodwood Park Hotel. Zhao Wei sometimes collaborates with Raintree and SFC, which have clearly benefited from the state’s cultural economic policies for the arts, but Khoo has not directed a film since 12 Storeys, though, as mentioned earlier, he continues as a producer.

Khoo’s early films (1990-1997),[62] those made prior to and inclusive of 12 Storeys, are certainly not soothing for the Singapore mainstream. Watching the films can in fact be quite torturous, as reviewer Walter V. Addiego of the San Francisco Examiner (March 7, 1995) found out with respect to Khoo’s controversial short, Pain (1994), which walked away with the Best Director and Special Achievement awards in the Singapore Short Film category at the 1994 7th SIFF. “Aptly titled,” comments Addiego, who then elaborates:

This black-and-white nightmare vision focuses on an alienated young Singaporean who acts out his sadomasochistic impulses, first on himself and then on the friendly chap who sells him cigarettes. The depiction of torture is graphic, so much so that my critical objectivity went out the window. I made it through the scene where the central figure pushes a pin into his finger. I held on when he snuffed a candle flame with his bare hand. But when he brought out the razor blade and the bowl of salt, I slumped down in my seat and shut my eyes.[63]

Khoo’s other early films are less tortuous to watch but are likewise dark in tone and mood. Like Pain, they contain stories about, as Khoo says,

anti-heroes...who don’t function too well and have to exist within society’s rules and regulations.[64]

Thus Carcass (co-dir. Nazir Husain, [65] 1992; hi-8 video format) focuses on the troubled relationship between a butcher and his two sons, while Symphony 92.4 (1993; Super-8) captures poignantly the loss and isolation of an elderly Chinese man who lives alone. Both, like Pain, are set in urban Singapore.

The themes of loneliness and alienation in an impersonal urban environment similarly abound in Khoo’s next two films, Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997). The first is Khoo’s debut as a feature director. Its young unnamed, speech-challenged, male protagonist is a noodle hawker who lives alone and does not appear to have friends. (In terms of the film’s title, mee pok is a Hokkein[66] name for a kind of Chinese string noodle). When not working at his stall in a shop located somewhere in the red light district, the mee pok man (played by Joe Ng) spends his free time in his HDB apartment “talking” to his late father’s picture; HDB being an acronym for the Housing Development Board, a statutory board for overseeing high-rise public housing.

He is attracted to a disillusioned prostitute, Bunny (played by Michelle Goh), but is unable to bring himself to tell her so. A frequent customer of the hawker’s noodle stall, Bunny also resides in a HDB flat. There, she does not relate well to her mother or younger brother. They hardly talk to each other, even though they live together. Bunny keeps a secret diary, but its intimate content is progressively revealed through a voiceover when her brother inadvertently discovers it and reads it. Bunny has an English lover, Jonathan Reese (played by David Brazil), and she dreams of a better life in the West, considering Reese as her potential emigration ticket. However, unbeknown to her, Reese is a porno-photographer from a European skin syndicate who preys on unsuspecting prostitutes.

One night, Bunny meets with a hit-and-run accident. As the mee pok man takes the wounded Bunny home rather than to a hospital, the narrative slips into the twilight zone (images). In his claustrophobic flat, the young man nurses her injuries and manages to win her trust. At one point, they attempt to have sex; during that attempt, she dies. Finally he keeps her corpse in his flat. Tending to it lovingly, he pours his heart out to Bunny whose body, in the meantime, has decomposed (images this page). Necrophilia in the context of Mee Pok Man thus becomes a powerful, deadly metaphor for critiquing a society that cannot foster healthy human relations.

With its spatial and temporal discontinuities, the montage sequence containing the film’s final scenes heightens this social critique. The visual track intercuts between the mee pok man’s flat and various exterior locations around the island-state (images). In these shots the outside world is filmed in the style of documentary verité. Intercut are rapid glimpses of passengers in a moving MRT train, and the HDB-scape from the windows of that train. Outside, the distant HBD housing, home to 85 percent of Singaporeans, seems assembled from Lego blocks; it looks clean, functional and yielding. Elsewhere, glistening glass and concrete towers loom tall in the Central Business District where the crowd, including immaculately dressed white-collar workers, moves about as if on urgent yet futile missions.

In another part of tropical downtown Singapore, an equally faceless, nameless crowd mills about Orchard Road. Here the thick air of Christmas festivities hangs heavily over the country’s shopping mecca. The view seems to present a picturesque consumer-land, with fairy lights dotting the landscape’s orderly pavements, trees and mall, and concurrently throwing a cheery glow on a gigantic jolly snowman effigy around which are reindeer figurines and other motifs from the North’s snowland. This collage is a compilation of still and moving shots. It gives a tourist view of affluent Singapore that stands in a surreal contrast to the mee pok man’s flat, including the seedy red light district seen elsewehere in the film.

Back in the mee pok man’s flat, the hawker makes an offering to his late father’s photo on the wall (images). Then he proceeds to eat breakfast. His late father, for the first time in the film, makes an “appearance.” Sitting next to the son silently, he watches him vacantly. The film finally ends with the mee pok man returning to bed where he snuggles up to Bunny, seeking comfort from the corpse, presently wrapped in a blanket.

In his next feature film, 12 Storeys, Khoo takes up the theme of urban isolation and alienation in modern Singapore.[67] He develops associated motifs, taking them to another height. Here he restricts the narrative to a 24-hour period on one Sunday; the setting to one apartment block in an anonymous HDB estate, and its immediate surrounding; and the storyline to four Chinese households residing in this block. The film opens quietly. On the soundtrack is a light extradiegetic tune. Visually, we see a montage sequence that cuts together various images from the environment into the opening credits. These images include long shots of the apartment block’s exterior as seen in the wee hours of a quiet morning, close ups of household objects, and portrait shots of “HDB-dwellers” in their home.

At daybreak, Meng (played by Koh Boon Pin) jogs alone in a seemingly deserted HDB estate (images). A large depressed-looking woman, San San (played by Lucilla Teoh), who turns out to be Meng’s neighbor, soon turns up in this HDB-scape, as does their enigmatic neighbor, a young Chinese man (played by Ritz Lim) wearing an Astroboy tee shirt . Meanwhile, the cheerful sound of an early radio program greets the new day. Moments later, the Chinese man jumps to his death from the 12th floor of the HDB block (hence the film’s title); his grieving father later remembers him as a smart son especially good at making money. This montage sequence, highlighting the lack of friendly contact between HDB-dwellers, resists official clichés for HDB housing (e.g. a friendly neighborhood), and for film critic Derek Elley, kicks in “a darker reality” that stands in sharp contrast to “the official image of Singapore.”[68]

From the outset then, 12 Storeys subtly reinforces Khoo’s trademark penchant for the unorthodox. Indeed as the film progressively unfolds against a setting all too familiar to Singaporeans, using gritty realism for its visual style, it also brings in the bizarre. With a motif that recalls the necrophilia and ghostly father scenes in Mee Pok Man, here the dead Chinese man returns as a ghost. Khoo’s handling of Spirit, the name he provides the ghost “posthumously” in the film’s closing credit, similarly goes against the grain of customs and conventions.

For instance, like the ghost of the mee pok man’s late father, Spirit exists in daylight contrary to local belief that specters come out at night. In terms of horror cinema, Spirit or, for that matter, the mee pok man’s ghostly father, is not a horror stock character. Rather than a bloodied zombie (for example), the spirit looks just like the living, not different from breathing HDB-dwellers (images). This, together with the film’s markedly unorthodox treatment for Spirit’s various manifestations in the storyline, works to dampen ghostly horror. Here, ghostliness is primarily achieved apart from generic tricks of the trade. For example, Khoo eschews sudden cuts that swiftly reveal scary supernatural manifestations, including shot-reverse-shots that show the living’s frightful reaction in the face of such manifestations. He also shuns eerie musical cues that foreshadow the manifestation of a paranormal presence, or rapid mood changes characterized by a shift from an ordinary environment to a creepy one.

Khoo’s camerawork in this connection is like that used for the necrophilia scenes or the ghostly father scene in Mee Pok Man. The visual style maintains a certain detached calmness that comes with measured takes, minimal camera movements, and nominal actions from the characters, dead or alive. The camera is, for the most part, still. When it does move to reveal a particular detail in a scene, the moves, whether pans or cuts, are never sudden. These shooting and editing strategies make possible the appearance of Spirit in the narrative as unmotivated: it just happens to be there, exerting its quiet presence unobtrusively (images).

In Mee Pok Man, such strategies similarly help nullify the horror associated with necrophilia, and surrealistically they bring to fore the sublime beauty of the noodle seller’s unconditional love for Bunny (images). That is to say, as in 12 Storeys, the extraordinary in Mee Pok Man is rendered somewhat ordinary. It has no drama about it but represents a fantastical extension of the everyday. The co-existence of the dead and the living in the two films therefore establishes an analogy about the putrid in everyday life, or about the dea(r)th of everyday moralism in Singapore’s rigidly ordered, capitalistic society. In Mee Pok Man Bunny metaphorically serves as conscientious objector (she wants to emigrate). In 12 Storeys, Spirit serves as witness as it is privy to the comings and goings of living, dysfunctional HDB-dwellers.

As eyewitness, albeit a dead one, to events that unfold behind the close doors of four Chinese HDB-families, including the dead man’s household, Spirit exerts a horrifying narrative presence, not ghostly horror but one that transgresses social decorum and propriety. It “enters” the home of others uninvited. It intrudes upon privacy, and even worse, it gains privy to the apartments’ occupants’ psychic world, giving hints about their dark deeds and desires. It does not sleuth but acts as a detached silent observer of the happenings behind closed doors, of the deep secrets within.

Continued: Dark side of the Singapore moon