Friday 27 November 2015

Mee Pok Man's 20th anniversary: How I ended up in Eric Khoo's first feature film

The Singapore International Film Festival is screening Mee Pok Man this Sunday at the National Museum to celebrate the film's 20th anniversary.

If you're going to see it, just be warned that I'm in the movie.

At least, I've been told I make a brief appearance. I have never seen the movie myself.

How did I end up in Eric Khoo's debut feature?

Back in early 1994, I was the research writer for Channel 5 variety show called Live On 5 hosted by a newcomer named Gurmit Singh. The show had a movie review segment in which I would review a movie with a guest reviewer.

I gained some minor notoriety as "Smong", the movie critic "everyone loved to hate".

For one episode, I invited Khoo to be the guest reviewer and that was how we got to know each other. At that point, he had won a couple awards for his short films.

Later, when he was working on Mee Pok Man, he called me and said he had a small role for me.

So one day, I showed up at Goodwood Park Hotel, owned by the Khoo family, to shoot a scene with some guy named Ong Lay Jinn, who would later become a filmmaker himself under the name Djinn. But at that time, I think he was working for the Economic Development Board.

He struck me as an entitled rich-kid scholar, so it was mutual dislike at first sight.

(By the way, another local film-maker, Cheah Chee Kong, later also gave himself the name CheeK. I can't help feeling that "CheeK" and "Djinn" were just copying my "Smong" with the abbreviated name.)

Anyway, for Khoo's film, Ong and I were supposed to act like we were on some sort of TV current affairs programme, discussing the issue of poverty. I played the heel (which I had had some experience) and said something like we should kill the poor or something like that. It was two decades ago.

There was no script. We just improvised for a few minutes.

Khoo seemed happy with what we did. After we were done, the director paid me with a fish-and-chips meal from the hotel kitchen.

And that was how I ended up preserved for posterity on celluloid.

(I was invited to the movie wrap party on Emerald Hill, but I couldn't find the place. I would meet Michelle Goh only a couple of years later at MediaCorp.)

I'm told I appear in the film for a few seconds on a TV screen. Maybe one day before I die, I'll see it.

Here is a 2005 Nutshell review of Mee Pok Man (I'm copying and pasting it here because it mentions me):
This is probably the movie credited with sparking a comeback of Singapore films, and watching it, you can probably spot various influences this Eric Khoo film had on the other more contemporary attempts by the various local filmmakers like Djinn and Jack Neo (whom of course, were in Eric Khoo movies).

Joe Ng (of local band Padres) front the cast as the title character, and Michelle Goh, in her debut, stars as Bunny, the prostitute he is infatuated with. Being a dim witted noodle seller, he's naturally shy and worships her from afar, as she's one of the regulars at the coffeeshop where his shop is at. Bunny, on the other hand, thinks lowly of the mee pok seller, and in your usual SPG character, goes for the ang-mo Jonathan, some sleazy photographer played by David Brazil.

The storyline's pretty basic, and you might think that at the point when Bunny became a victim of a hit-and-run, that the plot might pick up. Actually it sort of went downhill from there, as the mee pok man carries her injured body off to his home to care for her, to be with her. Alas, you should know what happens without proper medical attention.

Towards the end of the film, it drags with mee pok's man soliloquay, and Bunny didn't have much to do except be there to complete the scene. Somehow with the forced dialogue, it lengthened a scene which should have been shortened to improve the pace, which was quite erratic throughout the movie.

In its day, the language might have the audience taken aback, with characters mouthing off profanities in different dialects. But like I mentioned, it probably had made others sit up and notice that perhaps local movies should feature swearing to give it more street cred? Something else which stood out - while featuring many languages in the movie mirrors our multi-racial / multi-language society, having characters converse in different dialects (like the Fortune Teller scene) sometimes doesn't cut it too realistically.

Another point of controversy at its time was the nudity, or perceived nudity. The opening credits had still shots of a boob, butt and the female pubic region. You might wonder if it's necessary actually - doesn't really serve any purpose or facilitate the plot. Or the fact that Jonathan shoots nude photos. Given today, it'll probably be glossed over without much thought, and given an NC-16 rating.

Characterisation called for attention, as the main characters Bunny and Mee Pok man didn't really have much of a motive, the former seeking inner peace and to leave Singapore, the latter just wanting to be with her until the morbid end. Other characters, like Lim Kay Tong's Mike Kor the Pimp, was stereotyped, as are many of the minor characters in the movie. Cameos were plenty too, like X'Ho, Djinn, S.M.Ong etc.

But I still reckon it's a pretty decent first effort, and marked improvement can already be seen in 12 Storeys. While awaiting eagerly for Eric Khoo's latest offering Be With Me, this movie would allow you to appreciate how much things had changed for the better.

More than 10 years after Mee Pok Man, I would have another cameo in Phua Chu Kang The Movie, but that's another story.

EARLIER: The last time I met Eric Khoo