Reviews

Perth (2004)

Brian Holcomb

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.


Perth

Director: Djinn
Cast: Kay Tong Lim, Qiu Lian Liu, A. Panneeirchelvam, Stefanie Budiman, Ivy Cheng
Distributor: Tartan Asian Extreme
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Shaw Brothers
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2007-01-16
Website

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.

* * *

See also Holcomb's interview with Djinn, Director of Perth "From the Inside, Looking Out".

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.