Wednesday 11 August 2010

PCK movie: The reviews are in ... and mean!

Phua Chu Kang The Movie opens this weekend. I had worked on it as a scriptwriter. The reviews have been mostly pans. Now it's a matter of how it does at the box office. After Singapore, there's still the Malaysian market.


John Lui, The Straits Times:

It is high time Phua Chu Kang had a fatal construction site accident.
An hour into the insult to the audience that is Phua Chu Kang The Movie, my mind, wild with rage, fantasised a grisly end to a character long ago bled dry of any entertainment value.

Inside the dream script, Rosie, his wife played by Irene Ang, would get her lover, Frankie Foo (Lim Kay Siu), to run him over with a bulldozer and bury his body in concrete. The concrete would be in the foundation of an English-language school, naturally. Foo should in turn be poisoned by Rosie, who would ride off on the back of labourer King Kong’s motorcycle, its spinning tyres leaving a black streak on the slab over Phua’s corpse.

The grubby, chaotic, sponsor-intruding-grab-for-dollars that this film is will bring tears to anyone who remembers how startlingly good the MediaCorp sitcom PCK Pte Ltd was when it launched in 1996.

Everything about it was low-budget sitcom standard-issue, from the cheap sets to the obvious jokes to the flabby plots. But the character of Phua Chu Kang knocked viewers out.

Ah Bengs are a staple of local entertainment, but no actor had pumped in as much verve as the then fresh-faced Gurmit Singh. His pitch-perfect Benglish and gift for physical comedy prove that great line delivery can rescue lousy writing.

His style owed a lot to Jim Carrey but everyone was stealing from the American actor during that period. The problem is that today, Singh still plays PCK like the way Carrey played Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, a movie released 15 years ago. The comedy world has moved on, but someone forgot to send a memo to the PCK creative team.

Characters in a TV series must grow with every season, but the sitcom, from the time it wrapped in Singapore in 2007 to its current status as the spinoff Phua Chu Kang Sdn. Bhd. in Malaysia last year, has stubbornly gone in the opposite direction.

Instead of evolving, the comic creation has been cynically boiled down into a bunch of catchphrases in a pair of yellow boots by writers and producers who think jokes get funnier the more you repeat them.

Singh, in a recent interview, has said he is proud of the movie and of the character and will keep on doing PCK as long as the public still wants him. Is he being deliberately naive?

He should know that smart creators retire beloved TV characters all the time. Being professional is not about whether you can still fool some of the people some of the time, it is about integrity.

It is about whether you prefer to be remembered as a star who left while on top of his game or as a businessman looking to milk every last drop of revenue. Singh’s career teaches that for an artist, success can be worse than failure.

Singh and his employer MediaCorp could have chosen the classy option some years ago. Phua Chu Kang would have been a fond memory and a cult phenomenon, like David Brent from the original BBC production of the hit sitcom The Office. Instead, the contractor has become The Fonz from the American sitcom Happy Days, who by refusing to acknowledge his sell-by date, went from being cool to being a joke.

Anyway, if the character will not expire at the hands of its creators, perhaps this film will do the job. It is so awful that it feels as if everyone involved hates the character. Like Caesar’s assassins, it looks as if they all ganged up to rub him out.

The movie is bad in the same way bad MediaCorp sitcoms are bad, only it is much, much longer. Grimaces and howls replace acting. Primary school-level Hokkien puns abound. The chaotic plot feels thrown together from three episodes fished from the discard pile.

Phua Chu Kang’s character is wildly inconsistent from scene to scene. Is he smart or stupid? Is he selfish or generous? Nobody knows, least of all the film’s writing team and director Boris Boo.

The worst crimes against comedy are the slapstick sequences, which are obviously intended to pad out the running time. These scenes come off like an idiot’s version of Benny Hill. There is the standard speeded-up conga-line chase scene, but to add insult to injury, the bit is so clumsily rendered it defies belief.

The movie hits its lowest point in the part where the cops come for baddie Lim Lau Pek (played by Henry Thia). Look to his character’s name, by the way, for a clue about the movie’s brand of classy comedy. The arrest scene aims for Pink Panther-style hide-and-seek hijinks, but what emerges is wildly incoherent and insultingly lazy.

The United Kingdom’s ITV cancelled its dreadful sitcom Mind Your Language in 1979 after a three-year run, not because it did not have an audience. It did, especially in overseas markets such as Singapore (sigh), but because ITV management thought its awfulness, despite the few quid it was making, would stain the company’s reputation forever. There is a lesson in here somewhere.

If Singh wants to trot out PCK at company dinners or in a nostalgia lounge, more power to him. But please, for the love of everything holy, keep Phua and his family out of the cinemas or prime-time TV.

Instead of trying to maintain PCK Pte Ltd in its permanent vegetative state, MediaCorp must pull the plug and use the money to invest in new actors, writers and producers. Go find the next Phua Chu Kang. That, to use one of his phrases, would be using your brain.

Phin Wong, Today:

Singapore's favourite yellow-booted contractor Phua Chu Kang has made the leap from small screen to silver screen. And it ain't pretty.

In an attempt to flesh out TV material for a feature-length movie transition, the film-makers have attempted to layer on emotional depth and "up" the action - literally - by turning a family comedy into a crime-caper slash mystery-adventure fit for the Scooby Gang. Only with old people instead of ghosts.

Unfortunately, it ends up looking less like a film and more like a series of skits built around a barely-there story, with a handful of inexplicable melodrama thrown in.

Chu Kang and Rosie (Gurmit Singh and Irene Ang) - as last seen on TV's Phua Chu Kang Sdn Bhd - are now based in Kuala Lumpur. Ah Ma (Neo Swee Lin) comes to visit but it isn't quite the social call they were expecting - she's really in KL to look after Chu Kang's abusive, thought-to-be-dead grandfather (also played by Gurmit) because the old man suspects someone is killing off the residents in the old folks' home run by the icky Lim Lau Pek (Henry Thia).

Husband and wife decide the only way to keep an eye on things is to take up the job of renovating the home with Chu Kang's arch nemesis Frankie Foo (Lim Kay Siu). Snarling, bumbling and painting ensue.

There is a lot of potential in bringing an already rock-steady brand like Phua Chu Kang to the movies. Unfortunately, it is squandered here with the strange choice of story.

Rule No 1 when working with well-known characters: Don't remove them from their environment. Scooby needs to solve a mystery involving the supernatural, Bond needs to avert an international disaster, Batman needs to save Gotham from deranged criminal masterminds.

Phua Chu Kang is a comedy about family dynamics - and the family we know from TV is nowhere to be seen. There's no one to play the straight man to Chu Kang's over-the-top bengness here, so everyone has a go at being wacky. This is a movie where characters often talk to themselves - and to fish, on more than one occasion.

I'm not talking high-brow here. Nobody's expecting The Royal Tenenbaums - PCK needs to be knee-slappingly mass. But things get so silly in this film, it makes Phua Chu Kang the TV series look like 30 Rock.

It's an unfortunate waste of a talented cast playing well-loved characters capable of so much more.

Dylan Tan, The Business Times:

Not every TV series progresses to the big screen. But if you’re Singapore’s longest-running sitcom (167 episodes, eight seasons, 10 years), maybe a cinematic outing is inevitable. So just when you think it’s safe to leave your television off ...

The Phua Chu Kang (PCK) phenomenon is an odd one and there’s no escaping Singapore’s most famous TV Ah Beng, a character Gurmit Singh has made his own so much so he lapses into PCK ever so often in whatever he does.

The yellow-booted contractor has become so recognisable, PCK has been strangely elevated to national hero status, fronting various public campaigns including one for Sars in 2003 and another for the Kindness Movement last year.

Then just when you thought the series, PCK Pte Ltd, has run its course, it gets snapped up by networks across the Causeway where the spin-off, PCK Sdn Bhd, has been entertaining Malaysians since last year. Its runaway success has prompted various Malaysian production companies to finance this movie, which explains why PCK is now obliged to add Cantonese to the rojak blend of Singlish and Hokkien he spouts.

Picking up from the series’ current premise, PCK is now based in Kuala Lumpur where he and his wife, Rosie (Irene Ang), get a visit from Ah Ma (Neo Swee Lin). Before she’s even unpacked her bags, Ah Ma disappears but PCK and Rosie track her down to an old folks’ home run by a smarmy CEO who goes by the name of Lim Lau Pek (Henry Thia).

A lucrative construction job is up for tender at the home and PCK’s arch nemesis, Frankie Foo (Lim Kay Siu), shows up to put in his bid. Besides vying for the job, PCK also has to solve the mystery of what Ah Ma is doing at the home and why the home’s elderly residents are dropping like flies.

The scattershot plot falls even below the mark of a telemovie, with annoying catchphrases shamelessly recycled and banal gags which had been done to death in the series. Sure, the cast slips into character effortlessly and wears it like a second skin; but the exaggerated acting, magnified on big screen, is as unglamorous as Rosie’s bright eyeshadow and is plain ridiculous.

The below-average production values and shoddy cinematography do no favour for veteran director Boris Boo’s CV; while screen writer SM Ong wrote in a recent blog entry he hasn’t seen the finished movie and has no intention to do so.

To say PCK The Movie is a half-baked and rough effort could well be the understatement of the year as it’s neither original, clever nor grand enough to warrant a big-screen outing. Yet the guffaws from the near-capacity crowd on the weekday afternoon screening we attended told a completely story.

If there’s anything we can be thankful for, it’s obvious the movie is made for Malaysians and is riding on its renewed interest there. For once, we won’t challenge our neighbours for trying to turn something of ours into their own but in the interest of our newly renewed cross-straits relationship, here’s the deal: take PCK and let us take the credit for inventing bak kut teh.

Han Wei Chou, CNA:

It has been ten years since the Singapore-made television sitcom "Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd" (PCK) first aired on Channel 5 before going on to inspire a theatre production.

Today, the sitcom has spawned a stand alone film adaptation which stars some of the sitcom's main cast. Though based in Malaysia, "Phua Chu Kang The Movie" is not a direct sequel of PCK spinoff "Phua Chu Kang Sdn Bhd".

In the film, the titular hero, boorish yet lovable contractor Phua Chu Kang (Gurmit Singh) has shifted his operations to Kuala Lumpur with his wife Rosie (Irene Ang).

One day, Chu Kang's mum Ah Ma (Neo Swee Lin) pays them a visit, but separates from them at a shopping mall.

She is eventually found taking care of a mysterious elderly man in a retirement home run by the smarmy Lim Lau Pek (Henry Thia), who puts a multi-million dollar construction project up for grabs.

However, things get complicated when Chu Kang's nemesis, contractor Frankie Foo (Lim Kay Siu), finds out about the lucrative deal and heads to Malaysia to wrest it from Chu Kang, while Lim begins to make romantic overtures towards Rosie and Chu Kang finds out about a long-kept family secret that threatens to change his life completely.

It sounds like a lot is going on, but the most important thing you need to know about the film is that it is funny.

While not exactly a-laugh-a-minute like the sitcom that it spun off from, "Phua Chu Kang The Movie" is nonetheless peppered with hilarious situations, side-splitting antics and well-delivered jokes that reflect the cast's comedic talents.

Many of the punchlines are also delivered in their native language, be it Singlish, Hokkien or Malay, which is quite a refreshing change from the relatively straight-laced, pure English delivery in the original seasons of the PCK television series.

My only complaint was that the humour can be really slapstick sometimes, veering towards annoying rather than funny.

Also, it is a bit of a pity that some members of the original PCK cast such as Chu Kang's brother Chu Beng, and his wife Margaret (played by Pierre Png and Tan Kheng Hua) did not manage to make an appearance in the film, as I am sure they would have added a lot more flavour it.

Still, I think the film's director Boris Boo and script writer S M Ong, who was one of the writers for the original PCK series, have managed to translate the spirit of the television series onto the film medium quite well.

The movie had a clear narrative that progressed towards a conclusion instead of falling into the trap of behaving too much like an oversized sitcom episode.

There were also some emotional scenes in the film that gave Gurmit some space to demonstrate his dramatic ability but alas, they were completely eclipsed by the many laugh-out-loud moments in the film.

Stefan Shih,

It's still pretty amazing how a caricature amongst a group of caricatures from Gurmit's World can gain enough popularity to warrant his own television series in a prime time slot, then proceed to become iconic enough with his Singlish catchphrases to feature in an American reality television episode, and now making a quantum leap to the silver screen.

How times have grown for Phua Chu Kang, and Gurmit Singh of course, propelling him to stardom unimaginable when he first started out.

While PCK Pte Ltd had disappeared from our local screens, the best in Singapore, JB and some say Batam had found a new lease of life up north in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, spreading his wings to set up PCK Sdn Bhd and surprise, has been tickling the funny bones of our friends up north, to some success as well.

Naturally the feature film sees no less than four Malaysian companies involved in its production having bought into its potential, and continuing the trend in most of the commercial films released in Singapore this year, it seems these co-productions are the way to go for access to a larger audience.

Directed by Boris Boo, who last had a joint stint with Jack Neo in the horror comedy Where Got Ghost?, I am starting to detect a continued Jack Neo-ish style permeating through to local films which are trying hard to fill the gap left behind by Jack, by subconsciously employing similar styles after what would arguably be Singapore's most successful contemporary director in terms of box office receipts.

Things like little skits being jointed together to form a feature film, the injection of multiple languages not just to highlight our rich cultural diversity, but rather Hokkien as a language of choice. After all, PCK is a Chinese Ah-Beng contractor who should be comfortable in using his lingua franca, especially since rules for Television broadcast here have set strict guidelines on language grammar.

And not to forget the many blatant product placement which feature prominently in the film at multiple points, with some being part of the backdrop, while others, like a paint company, enjoying a totally needless, unfunny scene being crafted around its shop, and mentioned in what would be pro-product dialogue.

This naturally makes it very jarring to watch, since you're unsure if you're watching a commercial, or that SM Ong, the writer of the story, has something serious to say about the products featured.

And like a typical Neo fashioned comedy, there will be characters, scenes and situations which are reflective of the latest hot topics in town, here drawing upon the charity donations saga about misused funds, of filial piety and about the younger generation's attitude toward the aged, money-draining charity shows, and corrupt head honchos who are fuzzy and warm on the outside, but utterly dirty and scheming on the inside.

But you still have to give the story and scriptwriters credit in getting creative with the setting, because having to relocate to KL, and setting the entire film there, means the narrative can do away with PCK's brother Phua Chu Beng, his wife Margaret, and the kids, putting focus instead on Chu Kang (Gurmit Singh) and his vain wife Rosie (Irene Ang), both of whom are really comfortable in their roles like hand in glove, bringing back familiar faces like Ah Ma (Neo Swee Lin) and PCK arch-rival Frankie Foo (Lim Kay Siu).

Henry Thia's filmography has grown this year, and now adds PCK under his belt with his portrayal of Lim Lau Pek, the slimy CEO of Siao Soon old folks home who has the hots for Rosie (don't ask).

The star of the show, in my opinion, happens to be Gurmit Singh's dual role as PCK's grandfather, with a full backstory crafted out that allows for some hamming it up in period costumes, plus a number of scenes that stood out in comical fashion thanks to the character's presence, which provided much needed, genuine humour (forgive me for laughing at the aged) amongst many others which just fell flat.

PCK The Movie also tries to employ certain jokes reminiscent of Hong Kong mo-lei-tau comedies, but these stem from desperation in mimicry which didn't work, only serving to draw attention to itself rather than to make you laugh, akin to listening to popular jokes which are told so often, it's no longer funny.

I'm still skeptical about whether our local English television series can make that successful feature film jump, if the storyline continue to be an extension of what you get on television.

The pacing does sputter in the beginning before finding its feet midway after getting rid of needless supporting character subplots like King Kong (Charlie Tan) and his romance with Lim's assistant manager Angel (Angie Seow) in order to focus on the tripartite challenge set by Lim for PCK and Frankie, and a rushed plot involving old folks getting bumped off as an outcome of stuffing coffers.

In short, this film is only suitable for kids as it played out in juvenile fashion appealing only to that targeted demographic.