The Simple Dream of a Complex Man
Harry Lee(Lim Kay Tong) certainly sounds optimistic whenever he tells his friends Selva (Victory Selvam) and Angry Boy Lee(Sunny Pang) that he’s saving up his money to leave Singapore for good and settle down in the “paradise” of Perth, Australia. These two men are
about the only things he can count on in his life. Both exhibit a loyalty that Harry prizes above all.
“I am a very simple man,” he tells us, but somehow his life has become very complicated. Once married to a woman who gambled away his life savings, he also has a son who is embarrassed that Harry is his father and refuses to acknowledge his existence. After years serving as a Port security guard, he suddenly finds himself relieved of his duties, replaced by a younger generation of Singaporeans who are much more educated than himself.
Making ends meet with a part-time job as a cab driver, Harry also finds himself accepting an offer from Angry Boy Lee to drive a Vietnamese prostitute named Mai (Ivy Cheng)to her clients at night. An easy job for good money, no questions asked. And Harry finds this easy at first, but soon becomes enchanted by Mai, and convinced that it’s his chivalric duty to buy her freedom.
As time wears on, Harry’s dreams of Perth sound like nothing more than the empty mantra of a desperate and useless man. “I am a simple man,” he continues to claim. But this so called “simple” man has complex, violent emotions that cannot be contained for long when his dreams reach the end of the road. When Harry discovers he can no longer communicate with words, he resorts to action. A simple man with a simple solution to his complex problems.
This is the kind of film that feels like you are watching a fatal car accident in extreme slow motion. You can see just how bad it’s going to be but are helpless to do anything about it. Harry’s life seems doomed from the start and you, just know that he’s never, ever going to reach his destination. It wouldn’t really matter if he did, because he’s confused his dreams of finding inner peace with a place on a map. If it isn’t in Singapore, it’s not going to be in Perth.
Harry is a lost and lonely man, adrift between the world of his past and his complete lack of understanding of his present. In his state of mind, he cannot see that his attempts to “save” Mai are pointless. As his friend Angry Boy Lee tells him repeatedly: she needs this job to make money so her family back home can survive. That’s just the unfortunate situation. Which is why everything about Harry is basically absurd. He fails to see that he is trying to save someone quite willing to be exploited. That his son is never going to accept him. That there is no peace for him in Perth and that he is far from just a “simple man”.
Perth is only the second film by Singapore-born filmmaker Djinn, but it seems like both his first and his 100th. The film erupts with the kind of freshness and energy only first time filmmakers are able to generate and yet has the control and mastery over its subject that novice directors take years to command. Djinn has created a film whose characters spill off the screen on all sides and continue to live in the mind long after the movie is over. He finds just the
right tone for the story; sympathetic to Harry but slyly distant and satirical, as well.
While it has been compared to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic, Taxi Driver, Perth is really quite different. It’s clear that Djinn knows that he is making a similar story and he plays a subtle game with his predecessor the way Stephen King played with the template of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in his novel, Salem’s Lot. But the key difference is that Travis Bickle was a cipher living only in the present, while Harry Lee is a man defined by his past.
In fact, the past is probably where he spends much of his time. In many ways the film does not remind me of Scorsese at all, but rather of the satirical melodramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Many of his films featured characters who were representative of the post-war generation of Germany and here in Perth, Djinn also uses Harry Lee to comment on the changing times in Singapore itself and the passing of the older generation. It’s only in the film’s bloody climax that the two films meet, but even here, the switch from Travis’ guns to Harry’s machete makes for a much more personal sequence of violent expression.
Lim Kay Tong is the absolute star of this movie. Why he is not an international star must merely be a reality of the current position Singapore holds on the cinematic world stage. Because anyone who watches Perth will realize in an instant that Kay Tong is a powerful, brilliant actor and easily the match for DeNiro, Hoffman, Duvall, or Pacino. The actor holds nothing back in his portrayal of this sad, flawed human being with his Quixotic dreams.
The supporting cast is also very fine with Sunny Pang particularly memorable as the energetic, and foul mouthed Angry Boy Lee. The cinematography and production design is both stylized and gritty, capturing the tone of poetic realism perfectly. This is a Singapore seen as the stage for Harry Lee’s comic and bloody tragedy.
The DVD comes with two excellent commentary tracks. In the director’s commentary, Djinn goes into extreme detail about the film, about the culture of Singapore itself, and the ups and downs of independent filmmaking in general. It’s one of the best commentaries I’ve heard in a long time, easily the equal of some of Robert Rodriguez or John Carpenter’s informative tracks. The second track by the film’s star, Lim Kay Tong, is also excellent. Kay Tong is very witty and his polished English accent will startle you after watching his performance in the film. He is very specific in explaining his creative choices for the character of Harry Lee.
As Singapore is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual country, much of the dialogue is spoken in English. Subtitles take up the slack for those times when characters speak Hokkien or a mix of English and other local languages called Singalese.
Director Djinn also hosts a Production Design featurette which offers excellent advice to independent filmmakers looking to maximize a low budget. Finally, there is the deleted scenes feature with commentary by Lim Kay Tong. These scenes were right to delete as they would’ve reduced the shock and power of the film’s violent climax. Harry needs to boil throughout the movie without release. It’s in the end that we see what he’s been holding back, a lifetime’s worth of anger and frustration unleashed.
Perth is a film that is easy to overhype. It’s not a flashy movie by any means, and its subject is minimalist and intensely focused. But the one thing I guarantee you is that when the movie is over, you will never forget it. There is something so haunting about the character of Harry Lee that just will not fade away. Perth is a real gem.
A final word: Tartan Films needs to be applauded for the fine work they have done in bringing these obscure films from around the world to DVD. These are films I once would’ve had to obtain through bootleg operations just to see them. We live in a truly global culture today and there is nothing but advantage to gain from filmmakers being able to share their visions about life and film from culture to culture. It could only enrich our collective experience.
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See also Holcomb’s interview with Djinn, Director of Perth “From the Inside, Looking Out”.
- Perth trailer