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'Unlucky Plaza' review: Pressure-cooked entertainment

The come-on of Ken Kwek’s Unlucky Plaza is obviously the bizarre hostage drama that Onassis Hernandez (Epy Quizon) – desperate cleaver-wielding Filipino restaurateur – hatches in Singapore.  

His hostages are an odd bunch of gloss-veiled undesirables. Sky (Adrian Pang) is an actor-turned-motivational speaker who preaches ideas he can never practice. He’s an incurable gambler who has raked in debts that are too big for comfort.

His wife Michelle (Judee Tan) is the typical trophy catch whose marital discontent has forced her to find extreme ways to escape.

Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki), a Christian pastor who is also a real estate agent, is Michelle’s part-time lover.

Summing up the crew is Baby Bear (Guo Liang), the gangster who’s been hounding Sky for his debt payments.

 

The soul to the scandal

Kwek takes his time to arrive at his film’s main event.

However, there is a rationale to the extended and sometimes ponderous build-up. Unlucky Plaza is more of an exploration of the soul of the island nation that has always been accused of being soulless, rather than a straightforward narrative of a sensational crime.

vKwek dissects the psyches of his film’s players, ensuring that all their decisions – which culminate in the hostage-taking – can be traced to the peculiar personality of Singapore.

Singapore prides itself to be this sort of melting pot of cultures. In the Lion City, people from various races converge – forced to work together for their personal economic gain. Fueled by a shared thirst for prosperity over everything else, pecking orders, social classes, vices, and virtues are established, depicting an image of a nation whose squeaky clean exteriors hide a ballooning psychosis.

Phonies

This is Kwek’s engrossing agenda. His characters are all phonies.

Even Onassis, whose backstory combines familial fealty with misfortunes beyond his fault and makes him the least sinful of the bunch, connives in cementing the ills that plague the culture. He treats his employees miserably, taking part in the overt racism that belies the racial harmony that Singapore is known for. 

Sky, Michelle, and everybody else involved in their financial and marital concerns are all embroiled in a cardboard-cutout situation that isn’t all too unique. It’s all been done before, the intertwining stories of the unhappy spouse who seeks love elsewhere and the image-conscious rich man who finally gets his humbling comeuppance. 

Kwek, however, takes his chances and succeeds in tying the typical and the absurd together to arrive at an strangely convincing yet wildly entertaining portrait of a country that has gotten too convinced of its success – it's gotten startlingly hilarious.

Ironies abound

A lot of the comedy in Unlucky Plaza centers on the world-famous order of Singapore that is pitted with the chaotic turn of events.

Kwek relies heavily on ironies – to the point that his film’s humor faces the risk of being lost in translation, especially if the audience’s appreciation of Singapore is limited to its tourist appeal. The film requires a bit of cynicism to be fully appreciated. 

Thankfully, Kwek sprinkles his film with charms that are distinct from its subtle rebellious streak. Once he is done with his lengthy setups and concentrates on the actual hostage situation, the film speeds up and develops an emotional intensity and immediacy.

At this point, the actors layer their sometimes predictable performances with palpable depth. Quizon shines as an embattled victim-turned-perpetrator. Similarly, Pang and Tan are given the opportunity to grant their characters semblances of humanity even amidst their deplorable personalities. 

Not everything works. The framing device, a CNN-style interview that gives the film a certain meta-cinematic angle, is too much a gimmick that slightly betrays the authenticity that Kwek aspires for.

However, there is still so much in Unlucky Plaza to admire. It is a daring piece of work that blends conventional entertainment with its overwhelming intention to criticize a culture where the trade-off for financial success is a nation’s collective soul. – Rappler.com