Precious is the Night (M18)
Starring Chuando Tan, Nanyeli, Chen Yixin, Chang Tsu-Lei, Xiang Yun, Tay Ping Hui
Directed by Wayne Peng
This show, set in Singapore, is truly beautiful to look at.
If only it were a commercial.
A seductively lighted scene here shows the Hunk Who Plays Two Roles — Singaporean photographer/model/all-round good looker Chuando Tan — taking a shower. His perfectly toned abs glisten with sensual droplets of water stirred up by super-hot steam.
Which kinda sums up this film as being all smoke with no effective body of a story. It tries to be an upstairs-downstairs arthouse whodunit thriller with nasty rich folks and dubious servants. But tumbles down the hollow staircase it has constructed for itself.
You can almost smell the shampoo, lotion, body wash or whatever hygiene product this shower-ad portion is selling. Taiwanese-born director-writer-director of photography Wayne Peng here (2003's docu-drama Burning Dreams), a notable award-winning commercial director based in Singapore, could surely make us buy it any time.
Problem is, what his excessively posey, mildly erotic sex-drugs-cheongsam-betrayal flick is selling, though, isn’t a soap or a beer or even a titillating hand sanitiser.
It’s pitching a very slow-burning, largely empty, almost sleepy film noir-style psychological murder mystery that can best be described as Tropical Noir.
That’s what you get when a Raymond Chandler-esque wannabe — a contemporary dude known simply as the Writer played by Tan — types out quite obsessively, in Truman Capote real-crime style, a tale about a mysterious and scandalous double killing that happened one dark and stormy night back in bygone 1969 Singapore.
One murder — the offing of an unfaithful, glamorous socialite-mistress, Ku Yang (Taiwanese model Nanyeli making her screen debut), who falls down a bowel-like spiral staircase — takes place in what looks like a retro 1960s mosaic-tiled, landed-rich Katong mansion with the sea air nearby in a quaint era long before our land reclamation fervour blew that sea breeze away.
The other homicide — the termination of the woman’s dandy, irresistibly handsome doctor-lover-drug injector, Dr Tan (also played by Tan), acting as the Loki of seduction to women high and low — sees the fella shot to death right in his polished vintage car while he sits and waits to run away with his illicit paramour.
The Writer is replaying this story-within-a-story on paper because somehow, the dead doc looks exactly like him. At which point, you’re thinking about very funny doppelganger memes. But alas, you get distracted by the odd fact that this guy is typing furiously in English while he's narrating the lurid tale in Mandarin. Making this seem like a bilingual-Singapore promo reel set in a schizophrenic language school.
“I'm practically putting my fear into writing,” the spooked Writer confesses in his voiceover. For added tropical-noir effect, he wears a white tight singlet at his desk. Presumably because it’s heaty-sweaty-sexy. But primarily because the camera loves to show off Tan’s swoon-worthy biceps and man boobs as though he’s a Hemingway with muscles.
Who killed the cheating couple? What dark secrets lurk? Why is everybody staring daggers at everybody here? Why are there ants crawling over the dead woman's pretty mouth? Hey, is this supposed to be an extended ad for Baygon?
Director Peng says in the production notes that this is “a story about beautiful people with ugly hearts and intentions”. Perhaps he wishes to peel open the unlovely truth he senses behind the seemingly lovely atas faces he puts into his commercials as a cathartic counter to his world of superficiality.
Unfortunately, he’s probing the abyss with all the depth of a toothpick here, promising a twisty and suspenseful maze when it turns out to be merely a straightforward deal with practically zero surprises and a blink-and-you'll-miss crucial shooting revelation at the end that looks self-embarrassing for being so obvious.
This, despite Peng showing off his literary proficiency in Gustave Flaubert’s bourgeois-sinful Madame Bovary which both lovers take a particular liking to in the bedroom whenever the doctor makes a house call and gives the mistress more than her usual dose of medication. C’mon, you know what I mean, right?
More’s the pity then that this moody movie turns out to be such a vacant letdown full of facial close-ups, artsy composition and assorted outdated tricks because, at first, it draws us in with much intrigue, Korean-drama plot possibilities and salacious potential.
The kept woman, a seriously unhappy ex-movie star from China serving the whims of her heartless wealthy master (an unrecognisable Tay Ping Hui who keeps standing in the shadows), is besieged interestingly on two social-class fronts as she yearns to escape her dead-end fate. “My heart is a locked room in desperate need of a key,” she pleads
On the opulent upstairs is the hounding by the big house’s mean senior tai-tai (Xiang Yun looking in-your-face garish), of Ku Yang’s inability to produce an heir and hence, becoming absolutely worthless and shameless. “What's not yours will never be yours,” the first wife barks with cruel venom, mocking her questionable, undeserved entry into high society. Even the snooty English language and etiquette coaches hired to refine her — a fascinating plot insertion — look down on the poor lady.
At the downstairs level, meanwhile, the mistress is plagued by two busybody servants who behave in such a conspiratorial manner, Donald Trump himself would award them medals.
The cunning, lusty older maid, Bi Xia (Taiwan’s Chang Tsu-Lei), eavesdrops boldly on her mistress, acts haughtily towards her and becomes visibly upset when she hears her doing the, er, wild thing with the doctor behind a closed door.
The newly-arrived younger helper, Bao Cui (Chen Yixin, Xiang Yun's daughter), is, of course, the sexually curious and proverbial fresh eyes through which the audience is brought into the proceedings. She’s kinder than everybody here as the movie’s innocent heart, but even her goodness can be bought with a price.
“I come here to earn money,” she states plainly as she enters this murky new world of Crazy Rich Sordid Asians which director Peng offers just a tantalising glimpse of before he substitutes passion for fashion, portentous for pretentious and story for style.
Throughout this atmospheric, aesthetic pic that’s caressed frame for frame like a photo album, I felt instinctively nostalgic for Wong Kar-Wai, despite this flick being a Wong Kar-Wai lookalike without Wong Kar Wai’s multiple layers of mystery. Especially after the umpteen time in which meticulously placed old-school artifacts — typewriter, dial telephone, knob radio, sewing machine, kettle, vintage car — pop up as though they’re being gathered here for an antiques roadshow.
Seriously, does anyone even make Wong Kar-Wai arthouse rip-offs these days?
I mean, Chloe Zhao just won a Best Director Oscar for her guerilla-style authentic-fiction technique in Nomadland.
In No Fad Land here, Precious is the Night looks simply un-precious. (1.5/5 stars)
Photo: mm2 Entertainment