Thursday, 18 May 2006

Love Story (2006)

Delightfully postmodern, smart and intellectual

You are about to begin reading my review for Kelvin Tong’s latest film. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Find the most comfortable position: in an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the bed. Because you’re the sort of person who no longer expects anything of anything, especially movies, the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. So, then, you notice in newspapers and websites the release of Love Story, a new movie by Kelvin Tong, who hasn’t made a non-commercial movie in years. You plan to watch it in a cinema and are now reading the review first. Good for you.

It’s even better if you realise how much Kelvin Tong borrows the concept for this movie from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. It means that Love Story is a string of short romance movies stringed together, or perhaps nestled in one another, occurring either in the mind of a second-rate pulp romance writer played by Allen Lin, freely adapted from relations he has with women he picks up at the library, or in his published books sold on the romance section in bookshops, or perhaps in a movie called Love Story that you will be watching shortly after.

As with Italo Calvino’s effort, Kelvin Tong’s film becomes a warehouse of genre writing. While Calvino showcases a gamut of real and fictitious genres, Tong examines pulp romance in all its flimsy settings, from the political thriller romance to the raunchy crime romance, from melodrama to soft core porn, with the male protagonist, who may be a writer played by Allen Lin, or the self-image of that writer, mouthing one well-worn cliché after another to the various female leads in each short story segment.

The effect is the subtle undermining of reality itself, accompanied with enough whimsy that you’ll laugh along with Tong’s elaborate joke instead of feeling affronted by it. You’ll really need a good sense of humour, a sophisticated intellectual mooring, or a background in postmodern literature to accept that the high point of this movie is its corny lines, deliberately shallow acting and accented Mandarin from its female leads, and its overabundance of clichés. It worked on me, at least.

Yet, as Tong’s clever script tumbles from story to story to the dramatic (or more appropriately overdramatic) final act, you may feel the shift from the first 3 pulp romances to the key plot or the ‘real plot’ has not been accompanied with a real emotional or plot build-up. Herein lies the greatest weakness of Love Story: at its heart, the movie doesn’t present much variety in terms of the genre or subgenres it aims to parody – the protagonist plays the same tacky lines in every segment. While the screenplay is smart and clever, it is far too restrained and a tad academic, lacking the sense of far-out fun that was so crucial in the success of “If on a winter’s night a traveller”.

If Kelvin Tong wishes to dabble in the postmodern and in metafiction, he should have gone all the way with his script, extending his literary joke to engulf the movie itself, instead of just its constituent short stories. The fact that he stops short of doing this makes the film feel safely contained, constrained - an artifice and an artefact instead of an organic facet of the artificer.

There are reasons to be impressed with Love Story. Even with a difficult medium like digital video, director of photography Chiu Wai Yin manages to create a palate of soft visuals, playing with colour and lighting, rendering the familiar Singapore cityscape into something barely recognisable, something authentically fictional. I’d personally rave about how Chiu composes each scene using dramatic and artistic angles, and how Joe Ng layers whispers, raindrops, and moody piano chords into a soundtrack that at times becomes a full-fledged member of the cast. That the crew took just 16 days to wrap up production is even more shocking. How did they spend so little time making something that looks this good?

I really hope that this film will be able to attract a wider audience despite its unconventional theme. Love Story is simply the best local production to date, one that looks classy, professionally made, and is a real piece of cinema – there’s no way you can mistake this for a Mediacorp telemovie. It’s good enough for me to forgive Kelvin Tong for directing the hilarious travesty called The Maid last year. Since Tong has announced plans to direct The Maid: A New Beginning, you’d better pray that he has another winner like Love Story up his sleeve.

Notes: Kelvin Tong won the Best Director for Love Story in the Silver Screen Awards during the 2006 Singapore International Film Festival.

First published at incinemas on 25 May 2006

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