Singapore Shylock

The Politics of the Outsider in Ken Kwek’s Unlucky Plaza (2014)
by Ian Tan

In their book A Thousand Plateaus, the postmodernist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari playfully evoke the differences between majorities and minorities only to deconstruct this ontological dichotomy in favour of a ceaseless becoming and transition:

Minorities, of course, are objectively definable states, states of language, ethnicity, or sex with their own ghetto territorialities, but they must also be thought of as seeds, crystals of becoming whose value is to trigger uncontrollable movements and deterritorializations of the mean or majority. 

The emphasis on biological growth is to be found in the organism’s potential to multiply in unpredictable and ungovernable ways. The ferment of life destabilizes settled political ideologies and systems of oppression by demonstrating that closed ways of thinking and being can always be opened up by surprising shifts and outgrowths which occur from within. In this movement, the outsider is both a potential (yet-to-become) and deferred (always-already) insider, for stable systems are always in the process of reshaping their own assumptions and potentialities, thereby becoming strangers to themselves. It is thus the hubris and hamartia of ideology not to recognize the imaginary nature of its claim to coherence and essentiality. Reading a film like Ken Kwek’s Unlucky Plaza (2014) politically is to grapple with how it handles the ambivalent politics associated with the outsider within its diegetic space while still managing to recuperate and re-present an imaginary ideological vision through comic closure, the latter symbolically functioning on the level of what cultural materialists like Jonathan Dollimore describe as ‘a redemptive wish-fulfilment of the status quo’. If the philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek is right in claiming that cinema stages fantasy for its audience which can be mapped onto the functioning of ideology, the focus of interpretive work in a political reading of film will be to uncover moments when the fissures in ideological edifices expose the structural conditions of inequality and oppression (concentrated in the film through the figure of the outsider), while recognizing how the need for closure betokens an imaginary resolution which aims at consolidating and reifying the mechanisms of meaning-making without challenging its basic assumptions.   

Nearly halfway during the film, Sky (played by Adrian Pang), a wealthy motivational speaker, references the character Shylock in his fear and frustration against a ruthless loanshark (played by Guo Liang) who has come to collect a bad debt. This will doubtlessly remind audiences of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice and of the Jewish moneylender who demands ‘a pound of flesh’ off Antonio if he cannot pay off his debt. In the play, Shakespeare positions Shylock as an outsider in Venetian society, a character whose unsavoury dealings with money and payment earn him contempt and scorn with the other characters. Couple this with the fact that Shylock is a Jew living on the fringes, both politically and economically, in a Christian society, and Shylock becomes a reviled symbol of antisocial cupidity and unchecked materialism.

Kwek’s film uncannily places its main character, Onassis Hernandez (played by Jeffrey Quizon) as an outsider in Singaporean society. He is a Filipino man who has a son from a failed marriage to Cindy, a Singaporean. As the film begins, we learn that he is about to be evicted by his landlady for not being able to pay the new rent rate for his flat. It turns out that he is the owner of a small café in Lucky Plaza (a place which has become famously associated with Filipinos living in Singapore) selling Filipino cuisine. Onassis is in dire straits as the café business is failing due to a food scandal involving a salmonella outbreak years ago. From the outset, it is clear that Kwek centers the human drama of the film on the relationship between Onassis and his son Popoy (played by Christian Wong). Eager to provide a better life for Popoy in developed Singapore, Onassis tries his best to make ends meet, growing increasingly frustrated at each turn when his money runs out and his application for a Singaporean Identity Card (IC) gets rebuffed by the authorities. There is great potential for Kwek to utilize the outsider figure of Onassis to probe the failings of society through a trenchant social critique of how the marginalized are slighted in affluent Singapore. However, Onassis’ humanity is partially denied to him through the film’s cynical bartering of stereotypes of the outsiders in our society: Onassis’ cultural heritage is (predictably) reduced to a sentimental backstory of selling adobo, Manila is painted by Onassis to be a place of inefficiency and corruption, and there is the somewhat uncharitable reference by Sky to a hostage situation in the Philippines turning into a soap opera. As if to drive home the point, Onassis’ assistant at his café is a PRC worker, and Onassis implies at one point that the salmonella outbreak could have been caused by a mainland Chinese cook because they (the Chinese) put dangerous chemicals into their food all the time. One might argue that Kwek plays up these stereotypes for dramatic effect and lighthearted comic relief, but these clichéd, one-dimensional representations of Filipinos and Chinese people reduce to some degree our identification with Onassis’ struggle and deflect our attention away from problematic societal attitudes towards foreign workers which cause his desperation and disenfranchisement.

Much of the best moments in Unlucky Plaza come from how Kwek uses Onassis’ narrative to expose the insecurities and hypocrisies of the other characters. Although Sky uses his motivational seminars to harangue his audience, preying on their desire to get rich quick, he himself is revealed to be nothing more than a fraudulent poseur as he gets into trouble with a Chinese loanshark syndicate for borrowing an extravagant amount of money. His wife Michelle (played by Judee Tan) is a disgruntled teacher who dreams of escape from her loveless marriage and the trauma of losing her child. The illicit nature of her desires is emphasized in an unsubtle sexual scene involving her pastor Tong Wen (played by Shane Mardjuki). The film reveals the unbridgeable gap between the public and private personas of these characters, highlighting that it is precisely this gap that structures their neuroses and antisocial drives. Caught between their desires and the need to maintain a veneer of respectability, they turn towards criminality: Sky borrows money illegally and abets the loanshark in acts of vandalism against the house he needs to sell, Michelle heartlessly cheats Onassis of ten thousand dollars which she needs to escape with Tong Wen, and the pastor poses as a property agent to carry out the scam against Onassis. Kwek here indicts not only his characters for their thoughtlessness and selfishness, but also the larger society for its easy glorification of wealth and insubstantial flashiness, and its various hypocrisies which lie at the heart of its political and economic structures. Read in this way, each character in the film becomes an outsider through his or her straddling the boundaries between socially-sanctioned and illicit behaviours and desires. It is in these moments that the film evinces the impulses of deterritorialization in order to frame its handling of satire and social commentary, allowing the audience to look into the emptiness that the characters carry within themselves, and by extension, the hollowness of a society which ideologically displaces its own cupidity and destructive tendencies onto the outsider in order to maintain its own separate integrity.

However, it is Onassis the biggest outsider who commits the transgressive act of kidnapping Sky, Michelle, Tong Wen and the loanshark, demanding a helicopter to take Popoy and him out of Singapore. Similar to Shylock, Onassis intends to exact his own ‘pound of flesh’, or hand of each of his hostages, if the police do not meet his demands. Onassis’ act ironically brings to light Michelle’s relationship with Tong Wen, uncovering the layers of deception at the heart of Sky and Michelle’s failed marriage. Kwek brilliantly positions Onassis’ kidnapping as a way in which uncomfortable truths are exposed, not only with respect to Michelle’s infidelity, but also the xenophobic tendencies of Singaporeans towards outsiders: Onassis’ café in Lucky Plaza is wrecked by an angry mob incensed by his actions. The unsettling role of the outsider is displayed here, as he or she is able to destabilize the norms of society and reveal ugly attitudes and truths which normally lie hidden underneath its façade. Viewing the film, one ultimately feels that if Kwek had taken his material further in this direction, a more socially observant film could have emerged. However, Unlucky Plaza is unfortunately let down by an ending that unrealistically resolves almost all contradictions which trap Onassis in the first place. His erstwhile vulgar and demanding landlady offers him the old rent rate if he surrenders, and his hostages save his life when he is about to surrender. More implausibly, Onassis is only jailed for a short period of time for kidnapping (a capital offence in Singapore) and business in his café picks up after media publicity. The film even stages a talk show where Onassis, Sky and Michelle come together to discuss their experience, marital friction between the latter two seemingly resolved. In this way, the ending of Unlucky Plaza depicts a Singapore which has accepted and integrated the outsider who has, in the past, rocked the foundations of its social security. By making its main character wealthy, allowing him to succeed in Singapore’s capitalist economy, the film shores up and leaves intact the structures of society which it had somewhat ventured to critique earlier on, reconciling all tensions and frustrations which made Onassis such a compelling character. 

And yet, Onassis’ application for a Singaporean IC is still pending when the film ends. Kwek leaves this issue hanging, as if to bring up once again Onassis’ unresolved status as outsider. For us, it is through this gap in the film that we are left to ponder on what this film could have potentially been, had Kwek followed through on the subversive potential which the outsider brings to our sense of identity and consciousness, both personally and politically. Walter Benjamin ends his famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by enigmatically asserting that the salvific response of Communism to the disingenuous fashioning of politics into art is to turn art political; one way to read politically is to probe how ideology becomes monolithically coherent only at the price of contradiction both in content and form.

 

Ian Tan is an educator based in Singapore, who teaches Literature at Raffles Institution. He is interested in the relationship between literature, philosophy, and film, and has written and spoken widely on these topics. His essays on film has been published in the journals Senses of Cinema, Offscreen, and Bright Lights Film Journal. He has written two student guidebooks on Literature texts and has won the Inspiring Teacher of English Award, a nationwide award given to outstanding teachers of Literature.