Ya gotta be true... but ya also gotta be competent ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, May 18, 2009

Ya gotta be true... but ya also gotta be competent

Sell Out!
My rating:

Sigh. I wanted to like this movie, I really did.

Sell Out! chronicles the parallel lives of Rafflesia Pong, a TV host, and Eric Tan, a young inventor. Both are employees of the FONY megacorporation, led by two cheerfully unethical CEOs. When her arts-based show falters at the ratings, Rafflesia hits upon the idea to film dying people in their final moments and capturing their death on film. Meanwhile, Eric's invention of a 10-in-1 Super Soyamaker (that makes 10 different soybean-based products, including a mean cup of soya milk) is rejected by his bosses until he installs a "built-in breakdown mechanism". Both struggle to maintain their integrity - although Rafflesia never had much to begin with.

The film is primarily a comedy, and what enjoyment you'll get out of it will be in how much you laugh. Call me a curmudgeon, but while the rest of the audience were whooping with laughter, I was pretty much stony-faced most of the time. Its idea of comic timing is to drag a joke out long past the point where it's funny. Two big comic setpieces - a CEO chasing a sales assistant who doesn't want to actually assist, and two old ladies fighting for a taxi - are more tiresome than funny. (I suspect people were laughing more at the pointed jabs it makes at Malaysian society, rather than any actual comedy value). The more subtle sight gags work better.

The story, such as it is, simply doesn't work. At one point, Eric's personality is split into his practical side and his idealistic side, which pushes the film into the realm of fantasy. But there just isn't enough conflict between them for this subplot to have any point. Nor is it very consistent in showing the two sides - sometimes there's two of him, sometimes only one. Rafflesia is fun to watch, but after 90 minutes of her shameless tastelessness, we're asked to believe she has a last-minute change of heart. Nope. Not buying it. At all. Too little time is spent on developing their stories, and too much on comic scenes that have no relevance to the plot whatsoever (and aren't very funny).

Oh, and I should probably mention that it's also a musical. Yes, people do break into song for no reason, and hanging a lampshade on that is good for at least one funny gag (during the CEOs' song). The songs aren't bad - you won't be humming any of them as you leave the theatre, but the lyrics are clever, the tunes are melodic, and they're an effective way to hit an emotional cue. And if the actors are doing their own singing, then some of them are surprisingly good at it.

The actual acting, though... haiyoo. One big heap of fail. Peter Davis is awful. He's completely expressionless, and he reads every line in the same nasal monotone. Calling what he does here 'acting' would be an insult to actors. Kee Thuan Chye and Lim Teik Leong (the CEOs) may be veterans, but their performances are artificial and stilted. Hannah Lo (as Hannah Edwards Leong, a rival TV celebrity to Rafflesia) isn't much better than Davis, but at least she gets some entertainingly bitchy dialogue. Only Jerrica Lai really shines. She has the juiciest scenes, and makes Rafflesia likeable despite her repugnant personality. And she totally rocks that impish grin.

The direction is uninspired, and the camerawork is dodgy. The whole film opts for a hand-held 'shaky' look, and it's distracting from the very first shot. There's one part where we pan across a number of posters featuring the various divisions of the FONY company - they're clearly meant to be funny and we're clearly meant to see them, but we can't because the goddamn camera can't stay still. And during Eric and Rafflesia's big musical duet scene, every time Lai is singing her parts the camera is inexplicably pointing at the back of her head. Aiyoo, movie, what laa??

The movie also has plenty of satirical jabs at the culture of our times, and boy is the satire ever dark. Cynical does not even begin to describe its view of Malaysian society - except for Eric, everyone is venal, shallow, self-centred, apathetic and stupid. And yet it's all played for laughs. It seems as though in aiming for the funny bone, the movie doesn't realize how pitch-black its vision actually is. The ending is equally bleak. (Or at least, what passes for an ending. Talk about abrupt; it doesn't so much end as it just stops.)

What works about this movie? The humour (some of it). Jerrica Lai. The satire. The songs. The dialogue - I was pleasantly surprised by the intelligence and wit of it. The sheer ambition of attempting a Malaysian musical comedy satire with an actual message. Props to director Yeo Joon Han, whose next work I'm looking forward to. I hope he won't sell out his vision, but I'm hoping even harder that he gets better at realizing it.

NEXT REVIEW: Angels and Demons
Anticipation level: meh


McGarmott said...

I'm generally restraining myself from commenting on reviews of Sell Out! since I know the director personally now, but it's interesting that I came across two reviews in a day (yours being the second) where the reviewer pointed out the oddity and 'wrongness' of the film and, intentionally or not, recognised the reason why the director did so, but never quite connected the two.

If you noticed, the artsy shakycam later 'sold out' by becoming formalised and more stable, with crane and dolly shots and the cliched Vertigo shot. Selling out isn't just the unifying theme of the film - the film structure is in on it too!

The camera intentionally shot away from the faces of the singing character (and in addition, my favourites: singing CEOs whom we cut away from while they are still singing as we follow Eric; the nurse scratching her leg) because it is making a mockery out of musical conventions. I personally found it (hilariously) smart; the best Hollywood gave us was Not Another Teen Movie ... the Zucker bros didn't parody musicals did they?

And of course the story makes no sense. It is being stretched apart by the conflicting desires of the film to alternately be artsy or be commercial - and like Eric, the film structure completely sells out in the end; at the same time, we experience Rafflesia's realisation of her conscience in the end leading to regret*. Hence the parallel elevator scene at the end, which reflects both moods. (This is my interpretation, not necessarily exact with director's.) Anyway, that's why the so-called romantic subplot makes zero sense, why the last song is so pop and pointless (and so stably shot).

* As for Rafflesia's sudden change of heart, to be fair, there was an attempt at foreshadowing with her drinking the soya bean milk given by the receptionist.

I guess, if you look out purely for story, then you won't get much, coz yes, from that perspective the film is a mess. But that's not why some of us laughed so much. It's coz its interacting with us. (Film fest auds, not surprisingly, LOVED the opening sequence.) The audience in Venice actually SANG to the karaoke sequence.

Perhaps you still won't find it funny after you read all this, which is totally fine. I'm grateful enough just to find a negative review about the film that's not stupid, for once!

TMBF said...

Thanks for the insight, though it doesn't change my opinion. :)

Anonymous said...