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The dream of a simple man
A UK region 2 DVD review of PERTH by Slarek
 

There are some spoilers in what follows, so proceed with caution.


When I hear of new films being directly compared to older films, particularly older films I am passionate about, I'm never quite sure how to react, what first impression to hastily form. At its best this can mean that the new film makes an equally powerful impact or explores similar themes with comparable inventiveness. At it's most tiresome it simply indicates that it has ripped off the old one and is hiding under a cloak of false originality.

Take Perth as an example. This has been sold to us as "Singapore's dark answer to Taxi Driver." Well Taxi Driver was pretty dark in the first place and I wasn't aware that it posed a question that required answering by another film. But that's beside the point. I have a special relationship with Scorsese's masterpiece. I was at film school when I first saw it and it was one of those movies that opened my eyes to the possibilities of the filmmaking art. It was also one that film students of the day took to a little too much their hearts, resulting in an endless stream of crappy scripts that attempted to imitate it in some way, much like their successors were doing with Reservoir Dogs and The Blair Witch Project a few years later. Everyone loved Taxi Driver so much they wanted to make it themselves. Well too late, it's already be done, and done to perfection. Time to move on and have your own ideas.

And yet in 1986 Neil Jordan made Mona Lisa, which owed a debt to Taxi Driver so large that its borrowings bordered on theft, and made it work very much on its own terms, which had as much to do with the location switch to London as it did with the two excellent central performances from Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson. Crucially it was the elements not borrowed from Taxi Driver that left the biggest impression, particularly the relationship between Hoskins' character and the high class prostitute he is employed to drive. Yes there was violence at the film's end, but it had none of the cathartic release of Scorsese's film or its fetishist attitude to handguns. There were precious few film students pretending to be Bob Hoskins in front of their bathroom mirrors.

Even before I listened to the commentary tracks on this DVD I figured that director Djinn had seen Taxi Driver a few times. I'm also willing to bet he's familiar with Mona Lisa. If he really had seen neither then I'd have been prepared to put Perth forward for some sort of coincidence award. Before I get to specifics, try some plot outline and see if any of this sounds familiar.

Middle aged Harry Lee loses his job as a security guard and ends up driving a cab on the streets of Singapore. He's unhappy with the city and his troubled home life and his dream is to move to the Australian city of Perth, where he believes the grass is whole lot greener than it is in his homeland. The supervisor from his security guard days, known as Angry Boy Lee, now works for a prostitution ring and lands Harry a job driving one of the girls, a young Vietnamese named Mai whom Harry comes to care for and wants to help leave the business. As the day of his own departure approaches, a good deed blows up in his face that is destined to end in violence.

There are similarities beyond those in the plot: Harry meets and converses with friend and fellow cab driver Selvam in a coffee shop, makes cab passengers uncomfortable with his chat, and is an ex-soldier who practices threats to his own reflection in a mirror ("Do you know who I am?"). But there's more. The narrative is initially driven by Harry's world-view voice-over, telling use is made of the cab's rear view mirror, the violence of the climax is aimed at those exploiting the prostitutes, and the final scene includes a newspaper report about the incident, complete with a formal portrait of its protagonist. And despite his conversations with Selvam and his drunken cheer, Harry is a lonely and troubled man.

There appears to have been a determination to crank up the volume of the detail ported from Scorsese. The language is stronger ("cunt" is a favourite insult), the lead character made more dislikeable by showing him as an angry wife-beater, and the climactic violence more vicious through the substitution of a machete and a corkscrew for Travis Bickle's guns. But as with Mona Lisa, there are also significant differences in character and plot detail, and the location switch introduces a socio-political element specific to the locale. I'm guessing that much of this will register instantly with a Singapore audience, but I'll freely admit that I only became aware of much of it when I listened to the director's commentary track, having picked up little from the film itself. This cultural gap strips the film of some of its texturing for an audience not familiar with the these elements, which inevitably focusses your attention more on the recycled components.

A number of social issues are touched on that are relevant not just to Singapore society, but to any culture in which the dissolving of traditional industries is leaving a redundant, single-skilled workforce in its wake. The trouble is that this is too often communicated not in cinematic or even subtextual terms, but by having one character complain loudly about it to another, coffee shop and bar-room talk that may well be true to life, but rarely feels naturalistic and has none of Taxi Driver's dangerous poetry. And Harry does like to bang his points home – his intention to move to Perth in particular gets mentioned so often that I began to wonder if the city had taken out advertising space in the dialogue.

As a character study, Perth also something of a mixed bag. Given the choice, I'll always take a complex, difficult and even not that likeable anti-hero over an easy (and probably banal) audience identification figure, and Harry Lee certainly fits that bill. A lot thus weighs on the shoulders of leading man Kay Tong Lim, a respected stage actor who shines in the quieter moments, when it's down to expression and posture to suggest his feelings and intentions (there's a particularly effective exchange of looks when Mai returns to his cab with her face bruised), but is allowed – and probably encouraged – to push and even tear through the envelope when he loses his rag or gets drunk, which he does rather a lot. This reaches a near hysterical peak when he drunkenly gatecrashes his snottily superior son's wedding, bellows at the top of his lungs and is dragged out screaming "WHY DON'T YOU LOVE ME??" On his commentary track, director Djinn assures us that he's seen people act just like this, but being factually based does not mean it will automatically work on film.

Many will find themselves pining for a little restraint, something Harry rarely shows. This is especially true of the forty-plus blows he delivers to his wife's head during one of his temper tantrums, an assault that would likely leave an ordinary mortal comatose or dead but here ends just in tears and her immediate departure (mind you, an early Billy Liar-style fantasy assault on a bus driver suggests that this later attack may also be a figment of Harry's warped imagination). At least this prepares you better for the violent climax, a powerful sequence where excess seems appropriate, except in the cut-away that precedes it – we don't need to see that shot of the dead fish three times to get the symbolism.

Perth is an interesting and sometimes effective drama hobbled by a few too many recycled elements, a tendency to let the characters repeat themselves, and an intermittent drift into melodrama. I'll admit that I got more out of the film once I'd listened to the commentary tracks, but this only highlighted what was not evident without them. It still has its moments, however, and deserves a small pat on the back for Sunny Pang's lively, comical but oddly believable turn as Angry Boy Lee.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a solid enough transfer with decent detail and contrast and appears to do well on colour, but some creative grading makes it hard to be sure of accuracy here. Prime colours, on the rare occasions they are used, are strong.

The standard three Tartan soundtracks of Dolby stereo 2.0, 5.1 surround and DTS surround are on offer and all share a similar problem, a slight but noticeable distortion in the trebles that results in some of the sound having a tinny, broken-up ring to it. It's the same on all three tracks, but is emphasised on the 5.1 and DTS, especially if you have the volume cranked up. The mid and lower frequencies appear fine, although the 5.1 and DTS tracks are somewhat random in their use of the surrounds.

extra features

Commentary by director Djinn
Recorded in Los Angeles in what his producer Juan Foo (in a brief introduction) claims is a cupboard, this is a consistently informative track that covers the expected areas of casting and production, but also fills us in on the true-life figures that provided the inspiration for the characters and those cultural elements that bypassed me on my first viewing. Some of the comments appear to be responding directly to what have obviously proved common criticisms, and although Taxi Driver gets a mention and Djinn admits that the mirror scene was a direct reference, it's a remark delivered with a tinge of weariness. A good track nonetheless, and there's a great anecdote about the filming of a scene in which Angry Boy indulges in a little road rage.

Commentary by lead actor Kay Tong Lim
Another interesting track in which Kay Tong Lim (whose speaking voice is considerably different to Harry's) focuses largely and inevitably on the character of Harry Lee, from landing the role to psychoanalysing his thoughts and attitudes. He also talks about the other actors and the filming of specific scenes, and openly admits to having trouble understanding whether one encounter Harry has with his wife is real or imagined. He makes the Scorsese connection early on with the suggestion that Angry Boy is the film's Joe Pesci or Harvey Keitel character and openly discusses the Taxi Driver connection, though largely to point out the ways in which Perth is different.

Deleted Scenes with commentary (5:48)
A number of cut scenes with a fixed commentary by director Djinn, including some more violence and shouting from Harry and more expository chat. The scenes themselves are interesting but Djinn's commentary here is redundant, including as it does comments like "Oh, Harry!" as if he's seeing the footage for the first time, but supplying no reasons why they were cut in the first place.

Set Design featurette (11:17)
Set design drawings are matched with photos and clips from the film with an information-packed explanatory voice-over by director Djinn, who has to rush to keep up with the images.

Original trailer (1:31)
An enticing trailer that does its job well enough.

There's also a trailer for Tartan's release of Three Extremes.

summary

When Perth takes the subtle approach and goes its own way it scores, but it sometimes shouts when a whisper would have been more effective and there's too much here that UK viewers in particular will have seen before, with even the social issues tackled more effectively by the likes of Ken Loach and Alan Bleasdale in years past. Tartan's DVD is generally a good one, headlined by two very worthwhile commentary tracks, although the issue with the sound does prove a further barrier to total involvement. One for the rental list, perhaps, but if you do connect with the film then the commentaries are definitely worth having.

Perth

Singapore 2004
107 mins
director
Djinn
starring
Kay Tong Lim
Qiu Lian Liu
A. Panneeirchelvam
Ivy Cheng
Sunny Pang

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
languages
English / Mandarin / Vietnamese / Hokkien / Malay
subtitles .
English
extras
Director commentary
Lead actor commentary
Deleted scenes
Set design featurette
Trailer
distributor
Tartan
release date
28 May 2007
review posted
7 June 2007