SINGAPORE — The Chinese New Year period is probably the busiest stretch of time for the box offices in Singapore, and it is no surprise that two locally made films chose their release to coincide with the festive season.
The ordinary Singaporean is certainly more acquainted with Jack Neo, who directed and wrote the script for the film. Most would unlikely have heard of Uekrongtham, much less be able to spell his name.
Neo is renowned for a number of insightful films that have on occasion acted as a valid social commentary in the past decade or so. His masterclass lies in his penchant for acutely discerning issues embedded within the deepest trenches of the ordinary Singaporean society, juxtaposing them against a fundamental value system that an Asian society like Singapore would profess, and ultimately evoking a strong feel-good factor for happy endings that an adoption of these values would ensue.
Several of his films have won international recognition. 2003 in particular was a productive year for Neo. Homerun won a Golden Horse Award, tantamount to an Asian version of the Oscars, and I Not Stupid was nominated for the Best Asian film at the Hongkong International Film Festival.
It seems a dead giveaway that Neo’s film “Love Matters” would have easily dominated the box office sales this festive period, but Uekrongtham’s film is giving him a good fight.
According to Xiaotian, 23, a psychology major, many of her friends feel that Neo has been rehashing trite and old story plots, modeling them against his usual brand of slapstick and arid humor — and not to mention reusing the same cast of Henry Thia, Mark Lee and several others, film after film. “There is a feeling that if you have watched one Jack Neo movie, you have watched all.” she said.
Neo is definitely not a bad movie writer or a director, and the international accreditation of his earlier films attest to that. The problem with Jack Neo, it seems, is that he has repeatedly employed a singular strategy to the making of his films — one that may have been successful before, but may make no promise of a similar outcome in the future. His acute sensitivity did not ditch him in his recent films, but rather it was a headstrong adherence to a formula that may have worked in the past that has lead to his declining movie sales, one that must be readily abandoned now.
Upcoming writers and directors such as Royston Tan have made successful films such as 881 that have attracted a good number of movie-goers. Singaporeans desire something fresh, and Neo must rework his craft again and not be afraid of change or exploring new grounds. Much of Neo’s films are propped up by slapstick humor punctuated by sporadic bursts of witticisms or Hokkien interludes. An artist must not mold his craft with predictability. Once an artist does that, the suspense or mystery of his craft will be lost, and its value will irrevocably depreciate.