Neo's rural sequel too preachy
LONG LONG TIME AGO 2 (PG13)
Drama comedy/121 minutes/Opens today
WRITER-DIRECTOR Jack Neo continues the story of a family set in Singapore's rural past in Long Long Time Ago 2, the second and final part of the set.
He has said repeatedly that the two films capture a period cleared away by urban development. He is not wrong. The problem is that what little authenticity that can be glimpsed is buried under a treacly layer of television-style drama.
Kids playing with fireworks, adults cooking pig feed and pulling tricks to squeeze a few more resettlement dollars from the Government - these small moments are so personal and made with such love that you wish the film were composed entirely of them.
Because far less delightful is the story Neo uses to connect the fleeting moments of authenticity. There are two main settings on his emotion meter: hysterical and preachy.
Single mother Zhao Di (Aileen Tan), the target of everyone's abuse in the previous movie, takes a few more licks in this one, mostly from her brother Ah Kun (Mark Lee). Father Si Shu (Wang Lei) continues to favour his son over his daughter.
The story opens calmly enough, with shots of life in the pig pens run by Zhao Di. But it takes only minutes for the engine to rev from rustic idyll to screaming soap opera, when Ah Kun falsely accuses Zhao Di's children of misusing fireworks. The strife continues when Zhao Di comes into money, which Ah Kun covets.
Ah Kun is so non-stop shouty and ill-tempered, you wonder if his character might be mentally ill. He isn't, of course. In this style of film-making, the amount of yelling is directly correlated to levels of dramatic tension.
In between, more plot twists appear when younger brother Ah Hee (Benjamin Tan) romances someone outside Ah Kun's comfort zone.
Osman (Suhaimi Yusof), meanwhile, has to deal with a son who has fallen under the spell of rock music. Yes, rock music.
Almost every moment is freighted with moral significance, heavily underscored by dialogue and music. It's interesting to note that if you closed your eyes, you would be able to follow the events.
This style of storytelling owes much to radio dramas.
For all the suffering, shame and strife baked into the story, there's little inner life to the characters.
Ah Kun is greedy because his parents indulged him, the story says, but what about the rest of humanity who grew up well-adjusted in spite of a privileged childhood?
Osman creates a rift with his son because he hates rock but the workings of his prejudice are a mystery.
This diary of a family wrenched from a farm and into a block of flats cries out for a child's point of view. There are tantalising flashes of the sweetness this film missed in a scene where kids furtively relocate papaya trees to trick government land appraisers and, in another, when a girl crawls through the filthy hole in the floor of an outhouse to free her trapped younger brother.
These moments will remind you of the fun and vitality that Neo brought to a child's take on life in Homerun (2003).
He can be a beautiful storyteller - it's a tragedy he feels compelled to give moviegoers an oversized portion of plot and a harangue about civic and moral responsibilities.