"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Monday, April 15, 2002

Hello

Am breaking my long period of silence, because I have just had an amusing experience watching I Not Stupid. Would write a full-blown review,
but shall just cut and paste several edited ICQ messages I sent to Gabriel.

Well, i'm writing an involuted post criticising I Not Stupid quite severely for your blog - maybe i can discuss it with you a bit before i release it.

Basically, the thing that irritated me about the show is its extremely contradictory thematic structure - on one hand it has the whole anti-government, anti-control liberal agenda, delivered in VERY heavy-handed, unsubtle ways - witness the ad people smoking and bitching in the toilet, the various government-citizen analogies drawn between Terry's sister and his mom(such as angpow money/CPF and the general control issue) , and yet it also throws in the whole "mother punishes you for your own good because she loves you and works very hard to see you succeed" sub-text... on one hand it exhorts you to throw off your shackles, and on the other hand, it tells you to blindly submit to paternalistic bribery(witness the use of sports shoes) "for your own good", as the final stirring message of the show reminds us.

i just think that ultimately it fails as a parody, fails to develop the most interesting elements and characters. For instance, particularly with regards to the third kid - the hawker beng-in-training who wants to study hard and finally scores well at his maths test despite being in EM3, putting him on the degree path so that no one will look down on him in the future. Doesn't this kind of contradict the whole "it's okay to be a zhai artist or a fat spoiled bastard" theme?

Also, no one who speaks hokkien so crudely and colourfully(Terry's father) can avoid swearing in a confrontation.

And for secondstance, i find it horribly difficult to believe that a father working in an advertising agency doesn't know what to do with a talented artist son.

And the fat guy's sister is REALLY REALLY bitchily irritating as well as being in a wooden actress in a terribly cliched role - the whole adolescent going against overbearing mom who objects to room decor and dress sense has been done to death everywhere - and BETTER - from Jane Austen to Sweet Valley High. Although this is one of the rare few times that the adoelscent surrenders to parental domination after coming home from the police station and being bribed into submission with a pair of Nikes.

The message is: "If your child is delinquent and has to be bailed out of police station, buy their loyalty and subservience."

I actually agree with the trenchant point made that singaporeans talk a lot but ultimately jump when coerced or bribed to - but it goes against the thrust of the storyline, you get what i mean? It's self-defeating, and fails as a social commentary in that sense. Not to mention the extremely irritating Young and Dangeous chewing ba gua act.

I also find it amusing how the guy in the ad agency who's lambasting the death of chinese culture and how the overpaid expatriates are stealing qualified jobs speaks only in pretty cultured english. Not to mention the inherent hypocrisy of having the evil expatriate use an (apparently) all-Singaporean creative support team. Although I did admire the nod to harsh reality when the expat "won". And note also how the creatively skilled artist kid was offered an educational opportunity in the US. What's wrong with LaSalle? :)

Cliches CAN be fun, but not when they're poorly developed and crammed in excess into a movie that doesn't develop them well

I stand by my assertion - parodies have a message - which can only be delivered with straight-faced, wry underplaying(Wag the Dog, Glengarry Glen Ross, Brazil, Gosford Park), or over-the-top excess(Boogie Nights, Drop Dead Gorgeous).

It also suffers from trying to stuff in too many dramatic cliches.. dying mother, benevolent bone marrow donor, business failing, rising from the ashes, enemies who keep meeting who become friends, a kidnapping, divine justice from guanyin for unkindness, a near-suicide, a barely-adolescent lian-in-training potential-UWC/international school/chinese-with-an-accent bitch who has problems with her parents over her room's decor - frankly, I don't see how adolescently subversive it is having a metal wire decorative wall hanging as opposed to a cane/raffia basket(not to mention her being a horribly wooden actress, to boot), schoolyard injustice(the REAL bully always gets away), anti-elitist sub-text(EM1 achievers and their ilk are all elitist bastards), patient and loving Dead Poets' Society teacher who sticks up for failure students despite the horrifically injust faculty, xenophobic anti-expatriate ranting, anti-anti-Singlish campaign(note the unsubtle touch of having an ang moh being the one defending sinaporean patois as a source of identity), and terrible send-ups of classic archetypes. It only works with singaporean audiences because of crude surface sympatico and humour, but fails on technical and deeper narrative and thematic levels.

I have to admit the dialogue has good touches, and some individual performances are well done(particularly terry's father, although that's more due to the naturally unique humour element in having hokkien being spoken on the silver screen:); and there are some particularly well-done technical tricks(by singaporean standards) - particularly the amusing jump-cut as Jack Neo's Spacewagon pulls into the petrol kiosk and the dreamy, hand-held jittering camera down the void-deck corridor during the suicide scene.


I might also mention the fact that there's definite audience empathy - mainly because this is one of the few really hard-core satires out there sending up Singaporean culture since Army Daze,at least until the Talking Cock movie, so the emotional resonance isn't dulled by repetition or post-postmodern "seen-it-all"-ism, such as which hampers potentially good shows like Death to Smoochy. Shows like Scary Movie and Wag the Dog are proof, as i said, that satires work best when they focus either on being entirely absurd or deadly serious - I Not Stupid suffers from being trying to being both extremes.

I see the movie as a mish mash, a cut and paste of disjointed criticisms, linked by a flimsy plot.It wants to be a critique without going too deep, and fundamentally fails because of hypocritical, contradictory subtexts and an unwillingness to develop any narrative thread in depth, instead milking them for crude emotional impact or shallow, one-off-laugh humour. Which is a shame because there are really good performances by a few actors(the kidnappers, Terry's father, Jack Neo himself), and a few insightful lines, some genuinely good moments, such as www.guanyinma.com:) As a friend of mine pointed out though, ultimately, "Punches were pulled, and the gloves padded.
It's biting everywhere and nowhere at once. In the show, their criteria of success for the students and the characters are still in line with the gov's....." - such as the homegrown Singaporean entrepeneur beating off Taiwanese competitor with the use of mindlessly flashy product placement and the use of vapid, wordless Hong Kong/Taiwanese celebs to sell their products(which says a lot about what the moviemakers think of Singaporean consumers)

Gabriel's commentary: "oh! the sister. her English is really weird, it irks me. Her accent too. And this is supposed to be the epitome of S'pore English? Please. Then again, we are damn pathetic in English. The family was like divided into 2 halves, the chinese speaking one and the english speaking one. I find that hard to believe. Usually there'll be a dominant language, having 2 co-existing is just not feasible. I don't believe the Chinese godmother could brainwash terry all that much." Not to mention how Terry's mother who speaks virtually nothing but English and appears to be a major consumer of her family's product, actually speaks Hokkien way more naturally at the temple.

So as far as I can tell, the show defends being a fat, pampered, landed-property-owning spineless coward; it tries to be pro-ITE/alternative education whilst still glorifying(albeit only obliquely) academic achievement; it's pro-Chinese-culture and nationalistic whilst urging you to throw off the oppressive shackles of government control; and it defends the need for greater creativity while rejecting Western influences; it tells you to think for yourself and not blindly listen to your parents, even though they only care for you and are working hard for your own good and have made such noble sacrifices for you.
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