Veteran actor Lim Kay Tong delivers a powerful performance in Djinn’s stark film set in Singapore’s underbelly
“I am a simple man.”
Harry Lee’s oft-repeated mantra is, supposedly, the core of his character. Lim Kay Tong plays our anti-hero, a fifty-something former security guard, who goes into the taxi business after being laid off. Lee is a man with a lot of history, including having served in the military, but is also one who dwells on the past too much to be able to see what’s right in front of him. He often feels betrayed by his past – the people, and the decisions he’s made – and refuses to move on. He is determined to save up money to move to Perth, Australia and retire there. His new job, ferrying prostitutes around, takes him through the underbelly and his world becomes more complex and increasingly violent, he takes a liking to a prostitute, Mai (Ivy Cheng), and he sees her as a chance for redemption.
Perth is a film whose drive comes entirely from its protagonist. He is a man who refuses to live in the present – either dwelling heavily on mistakes from the past, or on fever dreams for the future and Lim deftly handles the sudden switches in personality. Lee claims he is a simple man over and over again, despite the visible evidence to the contrary. He fantasises about violently assaulting a snarky bus driver, and his bursts of real-life violence come as out-of-nowhere and as quickly as they stop. He is a highly complicated man fuelled by only one thing – the ever-increasingly slim chance that he will leave his sordid life behind and start fresh in Perth. His vision for a perfect future becomes more and more unrealistic, as he paints Perth to be something like a utopic society, where work weeks last four days and everything is cheap.
Lee is a lonely man, who hates his ex-wife and finds it hard to communicate with people, although that doesn’t mean he is socially incapable, as we see in several scenes. He has one real long-term friend: a fellow part-time cabbie called Selva (played by Victory Selvam, but credited to the unpronounceable A. Panneeirchelvam on IMDb), who has almost as bleak a view on the world as Lee. Their conversations in fluorescently-lit bars and cafes are a highlight of the film, serving up more than just plain exposition hidden as anecdotes but rather showcasing little slivers of their regular lives. His conversations with his boss Angry Boy Lee (no relation, played by Sunny Pang), are similar, and equally depressing, but just as enlightening. Selva and Angry Boy practically represent both sides of Lee. Selva has this ancient history that he lets get to him, while Angry Boy, as his nickname suggests, lets his rage get the better of him. We see elements of both characters in Lee, often in the course of ten seconds or less. His mad explosions of violence are the result of a man who is very clearly, anything but simple.
Director Djinn creates a film that is dictated by mood. The film is dim and depressing to look at, which should come as no surprise to people familiar with this sort of film. Every scene emphasises the seediness of the underground world and the ever-present gloom is accentuated all the more by Lee’s description of the sunny and easy-going Perth.
While it’s easy to say that Perth is quite samey, compared to other movies of the genre, it works in the focus it gives Lee. He isn’t young and disenfranchised; he is older and unable to live anywhere but the past. He is so convinced that there is something he needs to fix from back there that he will do whatever it takes to give one prostitute her freedom, solely because she reminds him of a past mistake. This movie does its main character justice in first building him up with sympathy and eccentric, almost funny character moments to tipping point, until there is no other logical conclusion but a bloodbath. The film is low-budget, no doubt about it, and some of the English language acting is bordering on bad and incomprehensible, but there’s an attention to detail from the director and a real sense of dedication from the cast that means that Perth can stand strongly as an excellent example of Singaporean cinema, a country whose films we don’t see much of here. I’ve heard that in the past, filmmaking from there was more conservative, but if Perth broke that mould, I am more than happy to see what else is offers.
Verdict: While it might not be the greatest film in its genre, Perth draws you in to Harry Lee’s world, only for you to watch it crumble.