In ‘Unlucky Plaza’, the plight of OFWs has never been funnier

DLS Pineda (The Philippine Star) - April 22, 2016 - 10:00am

Don’t let the posters and trailers fool you: I haven’t LOL-ed in a movie house as much as I LOL-ed watching Unlucky Plaza. It’s a smart kind of funny — a globalization, commercialization, next-generation, darkened Dolphy kind of funny.  It is not a waste of your two hours and P190.

I came to the movie house last Wednesday afternoon, expecting to watch another noir-treatment, galit-sa-mundo-and-its-effin’-poverty film. Not that I’m complaining, but ever since Erik Matti’s On the Job came out and captivated a wide Filipino audience, a movement to portray entertaining and sensational poverty rose. So I sat on my seat honestly expecting another vitriol-injected movie the likes of Honor Thy Father, except that it was set in Singapore and it was an OFW/migrant Filipino doing the crime. But 10 minutes into Ken Kwek’s “based on true events” movie, I was laughing out loud, alone in the movie house (well, maybe seven more people scattered in the audience and the security guard watching from the corner). What’s wrong with me? This is supposed to be about the plight of OFWs, right? I thought to myself.

I soon threw out the window whatever the promo materials had said. A line, blurted out by different characters at different parts of the movie, perhaps sums up Unlucky Plaza’s humor even better: “A gun?! But… but… but this is Singapore! Why do you have a gun?!”

The movie is self-aware and brutally honest — about antiseptic Singapore; about what’s “proper” for humankind and for progress; about the outsider’s point-of-view of Filipinos — so much so that it didn’t need set-ups, punchlines, and people bonking each other the head for a good laugh.  I found out later that here in the Philippines, its movie posters read in red, bold typeface: “PINOY HOSTAGE TAKER STRIKES TERROR IN THE WORLD’S SAFEST CITY.” In Singapore, on the other hand, it says: “Shit hits the fan in the world’s safest city!”

I was about to finish writing this review at 11:30 p.m., half an hour before my deadline, when Epy Quizon replied to my 12-hours-old request for a phone interview. “I’m with the director,” he said. “You might want to interview him as well.” Talk about shit hitting the fan. So they called me up and we talked about Unlucky Plaza for a good 40 minutes.

SUPREME: How did this collaboration between you, Epy and Ken come about?

DIRECTOR KEN KWEK: First and foremost, I had a friendship with Epy. And you know, when I was casting for the other film, I was asking him as a friend, “Can you show me around Manila? Show me the Philippines. Introduce me to people who might be suitable for this project.” But as I got to know him better, I just felt that Epy could do it. I know Epy as a person. I know his life. I know his past. I know the anger, the violence that he experienced when he was younger. When I went back to Singapore, I ditched the original first project and I had another script lounging around at the back of my head — it was called Unlucky Plaza — and by the end of that trip, I realized that I wanted Epy to play it. So I sent it to him and said, “Forget the other project. Do you want to do this one with me?”

EPY QUIZON: After five pages reading the script, I called him and said that I’m in.

I noticed the movie had elements of playwriting in it. I was amazed at how precise the words Epy used were; it was the script that made it funny.

QUIZON: I was reading the script and I was laughing and laughing. It was very well written and the humor itself was part of the script. There was very little need for adlibbing. These were planned precisely — the timing, the way we need to deliver the lines, tama ‘yung timpla.

Especially when things started happening in that one room, I felt like I was watching an ensemble in a one-act play.

KWEK: — an ensemble! And I’m honored that I’ve worked with these guys because they’re some of the biggest stars in Singapore. Adrian Pang’s worked with Lea Salonga and he’s like the Robert De Niro of Singapore.

How did the humor in this film come about?

KWEK: The humor comes about like this: I think people think that Singapore’s a really serious country and that we are very, very straight. But I guess I’m not reading it like that. Even if the script is funny, I think we wanted to play the reality of the situation. So therefore, we never played the comedy. And in fact, because we didn’t play the comedy, I think the situation is so extreme that the comedy comes out of the character’s desperation. They may have funny lines and they may be in a funny situation. But for the most part, I think the actors played it very straight.

We’re showing there a very bad side of human nature. We have very flawed characters. But there’s also a lot of action and humor in the film. I think it’s a new thing that the audiences haven’t seen before.

What did you intend to show in your portrayal of Singapore, or this culture of globalization, in making the film?

KWEK: You know, I’ve been called controversial and subversive so often that I’ve become numb to it. Frankly, I just set out to tell an entertaining story. And usually, most of my work, they make people laugh. And the Singapore humor is a little bit different from the Filipino humor. Maybe it’s also because I had a lot of influence from British comedy. It’s quite a straight-faced comedy, but I think that that’s the kind of comedy that shows our world best. Singapore is definitely not the most perfect society, not the cleanest society, not the safest either. I mean, that’s our reputation, right? But at the same time, Singapore is also susceptible, like any other global city. There are different communities, there are tensions between races, between groups. Human beings are flawed everywhere in the world. And why should Singapore be any different? They are also greedy. They are also lustful. They are also clumsy and awkward. And I want to show that human frailty rather than whitewash everything like a member of the tourism board. No, it’s far from it. I think a tourism society would be as corny as hell.

How did you see your character, Onassis Hernandez, and how did you wish to portray it?

QUIZON: I could go back to one of his lines: “It’s not that I don’t want to be Filipino. But I want to be Singaporean like you,” he told his son. Why? Because they have better incentives.  And I knew I was going to have a better life for my son and my family if I was a Singaporean national. The only Filipino thing about my son is his terms of endearment.

KWEK: As the writer, I always saw Onassis as having a struggle — and this is from having so many Filipino friends in and out of the Philippines. You can take the Filipino out of the Philippines, but you can never take the Philippines out of the Filipino. And I see that there is that struggle in Onassis. He’s maybe not too conscious of it. But definitely, he is struggling to adapt. He wants to be accepted in the country where he brought up his son. But you know he had so many instincts that are Filipino. Like if he’s angry, he drops a Filipino phrase. In the hostage drama, he was still very Filipino. He’s a complex character. He’s more complex than he realizes.

* * *

Unlucky Plaza is hopefully still showing in theaters. Tweet the author @sarhentosilly.

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