The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place between July 14 and July 30. For more information, click here.
Ohhh, boy, what a ruthlessly executed little rat trap of a movie this turned out to be!
In his sophomore feature Geylang, director Boi Kwong have put together that rarest of things, a modern noir that keeps its style, character, plot, and thrill in perfect balance. It Shorn of self-congratulation, self-indulgence, or ideas above its station, it knows exactly the vicious appeal at the heart of noir: it’s fun watching losers lose, but only when they choose to lose.
There has been a murderin Geylang, a small neighborhood in Singapore which is presumably nowhere near as festering and depraved as the movie makes it out to be. As one might expect, the how and why of what happened to the late, barely lamented streetwalker Zhang Xiao Ling is a mystery to only be uncovered in the fullness of time. But as one might also expect, is that none of the people we’re about to meet seem particularly invested in getting to the bottom of things; they’ve all got rather a lot going on.
Chief among them is Fatty (Mark Lee), a decidedly non-chunky pimp with the kind of embarrassing long, stringy hair that does more to explain his character than ten pages of backstory could ever do. When not running girls out of the Cherry Affairs Sex Shop, he lives with his dementia suffering dad (a scene stealing Woon Sang Tau) and racks up debts he can’t afford to repay. When a collector drops by unannounced to have a decidedly unfriendly discussion about it, things very quickly spiral out of control in a reassuringly predictable manner.
And then there’s Dr. Sun (Shane Mardjuki), a twitchy first time visitor to Cherry Affairs, who requests the services of one Shangri-La (Lin Ying Wei), an assignation that turns out to be something less than a match made in Heaven.
Lastly, there’s Celine (Sheila Sim), a woman who has appointed herself guardian of the streets; her Project Angel acta as a resource to help and protect sex workers. Good for the streets, but in the opinion of her ambitious politician partner Edwin (Eric Gwee Ying Kiat), bad optics. He’s running on a ‘clean up the city’ platform, and in his mind having a mate who associates with streetwalkers is undermining his messaging. But Celine has her own goals, and no intentions of just rolling over for anyone.
Those are our four main players, the pinballs that spend one long night bouncing off one another in increasingly twisted circumstances, and to say much more than that would be a disservice to the perfectly calibrated chaos engine that Kwong and his screenwriter Link Sng have set up here. With it’s chronologically skewed narrative drive, it’s the exact type of thriller that’s very easy to get painfully wrong. But the way information is revealed is peerless. The film bounces back in time to fill in the gaps and reveal hidden connections, just as these sorts of thrillers always do. But unlike most other attempts, which all too frequently spin their wheels trying to hold off explaining anything in an attempt to prolong the suspense, in Geylang you learn exactly what you need to know roughly ten seconds after you realize you didn’t know it, and they never linger in the past when there’s so much present to be dealt with.
It’s 100% forward momentum, and the sense of relentlessness is intoxicating.
So the structure is airtight, but without decent characters and performers, the film would still be nothing but an empty wind-up toy. And this is where the film reaches that next level; almost nobody here could be considered ‘good’ in the conventional sense, but as they say, “everyone has his reasons”, and so it is here. Sometimes those reasons are as simple as ‘greed’, but it’s hard times in Geylang, and the sense of desperation that everyone is laboring under makes for a series of all-too-understandable terrible decisions on the part of every last person here.
As the most outwardly unsympathetic character, Mark Lee probably gets the most screentime, and he infuses his character with a snarky wit and an an aura of scuzzball resourcefulness that makes you sympathize with him, even as he’s arguably the most faithless person in the whole roster.
Granted, his exasperated but still fairly loving relationship with his dad does serve to soften him. But only a little.
He’s matched blow-for-blow by both Sim and Wei as Celine and Shangri-La. At first, Celine seems like the most obviously principled, but this is the sort of film where it’s only a matter of time before the cracks start to show, and Sim really nails the transition from steely to anguished. And as a character who in many ways gets the worst of it, proves steely in an entirely different way; by the very virtue of her subplot, she has to spend most of her time at an 11, and she continually finds new ways to embody a cockroach-like survival instinct. Mardjuki as Sun has a bit less to do, but his twitchy, sweaty performance linger even when he’s off screen. Plus, there was a moment towards the end with his character, a flawlessly timed Frying Pan/Fire moment, that made me absolutely cackle with glee.
I mean, I actually cackled a lot at Geylang. Noir is pretty much my favorite genre, and when something is your favorite genre, you tend to grade on a curve. So it’s nice when that’s not even remotely necessary. If you have a black heart and love watching people land in shit and choosing to dig, I cannot recommend this one highly enough.