Notwithstanding writer-director Ken Kwek’s claim that social commentary isn’t a card he is playing, his debut feature—an uneven but respectable effort—will nevertheless attract filmgoers attuned to Singapore’s cultural life and current affairs simply because it invokes the tense relationship between Singaporeans and foreigners now on a rolling boil in the city-state. But for everyone else, Unlucky Plaza is likely to be an OK caper at best, or else elicit a trifling “so what” at worst.
In this black humoured escapade, the desperate lives of debtors and creditors cross paths. Filipino immigrant Onassis (Epy Quizon) is a single father struggling with his restaurant when a smug motivational speaker and his adulterous wife (Adrian Pang and Judee Tan) target him in a home rental scam, with an unwitting accomplice in tow, the wife’s pastor (Shane Mardjuki). Despite gilded appearances, the Singaporean couple is also insolvent and is being hounded by a Mainland Chinese loan shark (Guo Liang). Pushed to the edge, Onassis takes them all as hostages in the couple’s bungalow in a bid to settle scores.
Kwek has acknowledged, both in interviews prior and at the Q&A of the film’s first public screening, that contemporary American crime dramas, such as early Coen Brothers’ films, have inspired him. The influence is there, since his characters are ensnared in dangerous consequences that snowball from desperation. Kwek’s experiment is doubly challenging: plotting an impressive crime caper is hard enough, but to sustain it with a local brand of ironic and fantastical humour isn’t easy—especially in Singapore, which is too square for its own good.
Unlucky Plaza’s world premiere in Toronto marks an ongoing trend in global visibility for Singaporean films in recent years. This is the second year running that Toronto has placed a Singaporean film in its Discovery section—although overall, it’s Singapore’s third film in five years, after Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastle (2010) and Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013). But back home, audiences are unlikely to embrace it in the same ways as these titles since the crime genre is hardly produced in Singapore, while the film’s irreverent pedigree and distinctly Western flavour is little appreciated at best.
For now, this point is moot since the film has at least two hurdles to cross: finding a domestic distributor and clearing Singapore’s censors, who will flinch at the liberal use of profanity and strong language (this is the first Singaporean feature with the most number of ‘fucks’ uttered), mordant swipes at religion, and dashings of, per Kwek, “subjective racism.” The film’s title references the name of an old school mall in downtown Singapore called Lucky Plaza, where Onassis’ restaurant is located, but which is more popularly known as a hangout spot for Singapore’s Filipino community.