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The impact of the decline of heavy industry on workers and their families in the Tiexi district of Shenyang, China, at the turn of the 21st century, documented unflinchingly by a fly-on-the-wall camera.
There's plenty of buzz overseas surrounding Eric Khoo's latest movie My Magic, which has recently been selected as Singapore's official entry to the 2009 Oscars in the foreign language film category, hence the rush to have it screened this month to qualify. While his previous effort Be With Me was disqualified on a technicality in the same category (they really timed the amount of English or lack thereof in the film!), this time round Eric has crafted a movie in Tamil as the story tells of the love-hate relationship between an Indian father and son.
I don't recall any recent Tamil feature films being made in Singapore, save perhaps for the segment in Wee Li Lin's Gone Shopping, and in the upcoming Salawati, so this marks a first that race and language didn't become barriers, but celebrated that a filmmaker can transcend these issues or capitalize on what is uniquely Singapore given that universal themes apply anywhere. For a father-son story, the last which I enjoyed was Patrick Tam's After This Our Exile, but of course this is a different story and setting altogether.
In the spirit of magic, the film sets up The Pledge, where a down and out man Francis (Bosco Francis) opens the film with repetitive drinking, without any money to pay and picks up a fight at a bar. He wanders around in his drunken state and stumbles home each night, expecting his young son (Jathisweran) to pick up after him. The son naturally resents his noisy father, whom he thinks is good for nothing, having to fend for himself in school, touting his services completing homework for peers for a fee. This kid has got plenty of growing up to do, and despite his young age, you can feel and sense his maturity despite his small, mild-mannered frame.
The Turn comes when Francis realizes that should he continue his wayward behaviour, he would be losing his son, and in order to step up his role as a father and sole caregiver, he has to find meaningful work within his abilities, and here it becomes a showcase for Francis to demonstrate some of the much touted Bizarre Magic, where he sells his act to a paying club owner. We get to see the more gentle tricks like the renowned "Flaming Wallet" and simple ones like disappearing acts, before we go into dangerous ones like fire eating, and the slight dalliance into torture porn territory like Hostel, when demands get higher and riskier for bigger economic returns, selling his soul for the physical pleasures of man, exemplified by the Chinese bosses of the club.
For the Prestige, you must be nuts to think I were to reveal it. Suffice to say that the movie is not about magic tricks per se, or being too bizarre that it alienates its audience or make you go into deep ponder. Mee Pok Man has such moments, as does 12 Storeys with the incessant chatter of the old lady, but as Eric Khoo professed, this is a simple story, and I'd like to think of it as that too, so much so that a potential subplot that could have developed deeply with Francis showing kindness to a stranger (Grace Kalaiselvi) didn't go beyond my understanding that a fresh friendship has been struck.
Much of the magic here, came from the performance and chemistry between Bosco Francis and Jathisweran as father and son. Francis is not always uncaring or drunken, and the story does provide room to show a rare sober state that the son would probably have enjoyed such presence a lot more. Their home is sparse yet cluttered in pockets around, in parallel to the seemingly empty interactions the characters engage in, but yet having insurmountable complexities in the relationship between them. And I suppose it's typical of Asian fathers to be somewhat reserved in their expression of love and care to their children, as per Francis' hard and punishing work away from the view of his son, understanding his need to provide and never one proud to exclaim his efforts when he coughs out wads of dough.
There are some nice cameos and supporting appearances here, some of whom are Eric Khoo movie regulars. Seet Keng Yew, who played a shy security guard in Be With Me admiring his unattainable love from afar, plays Big Boss, silent almost throughout the movie, but hiding some intense masochistic tendencies. Blink and you'll miss him, Lim Poh Huat who starred opposite Seet, cameos here as a cleaner in a club. But the one supporting role that caught my attention, was Sunny Pang. While he has starred in previous local independent productions like Perth and Lucky 7 with speaking lines, here he silences himself, and lets his hands do the talking. That one-hand-wooden-rod-twirl probably affirmed my belief that his film-in-production Knife, would be one heck of a movie to keep tabs on, and I hope that it does get made soon.
Making its rounds in the overseas festival circuit, the largest of all being Cannes where it becomes Singapore's first competitive entry for the Palme d'Or, the film will also makes its debut at the Tokyo International Film Festival next month. With a little bit of luck I may just bump into lead actor and real life magician Bosco Francis as he's scheduled to make an appearance there, and bring you some of the lowdown on how the screening went over at the land of the rising sun.
If you're still curious about Eric Khoo films but are apprehensive about the art house essence, My Magic will surprise you at how simple and accessible it is, yet retaining its quality to resonate and move. You don't need big action or big drama, all you need is plenty of heart, and this film has loads of it. Recommended stuff!
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