Perth (2004)

Rating: B-

Dir: Djinn
Star: Lim Kay Tong, A. Panneeirchelvam, Ivy Cheng, Sunny Pang

Harry (Lim) is a former army man, a self-proclaimed “simple man”, laid off from his job as a security supervisor, who starts ferrying hookers for a local gangster. Growing increasingly disenchanted with the modern version of Singapore, plus his emotional separation from his wife and son, he dreams of leaving for the Australian city of Perth, where lobsters are cheap. However, a growing obsession with one passenger (Cheng) threatens to derail this hope, when he comes up against the brutal reality of life in Singapore’s underbelly. The obvious touchstone is Taxi Driver, not least a scene where Harry stages imaginary conversations with himself in a mirror.

But while both center on a cabbie and his misguided efforts to free a prostitute, the character arc in Scorsese’s film is quite the reverse: Travis Bickle is almost without humanity, possessing no friends or family, yet his actions redeem him. Despite a myriad of issues, Harry can relate to most of society and fits in fairly well – Djinn has drawn parallels for his film as broad as Bad Lieutenant and Don Quixote, and the former may be a more accurate comparison. Despite his claim, Harry is actually a complex man, capable of both casual brutality towards his wife and great sacrifice for someone he hardly knows. Conveying such a multi-faceted character means much hangs on the lead, and Lim Kay Tong delivers, even doing no more than sitting in his cab, ranting about – what else? – Perth.

The film also depicts a rarely-seen side of the former colony: beside Western, HK or Korean underworld movies, this may still be relatively gentle, but will definitely not be mistaken for a tourism board promotional piece. The film does lapse somewhat in the middle, losing direction and impetus between establishing its characters and the inevitable, violent climax. Still, Perth is a definite step forward in the maturation of Singapore cinema, even if Djinn has relocated to LA since making it. Hopefully it has opened some doors; certainly, as among the first honest explorations of issues that concern modern Singapore and its inhabitants, this can only help develop a truly independent film industry there.