Mee Pok Man is only suggested for historians or aficionados of the Singaporean cinema scene; otherwise, it has relatively few intrinsic merits.
The feature debut of now-famous director Eric Khoo, Mee Pok Man is often regarded as the film that revived Singaporean cinema after a decade-long dry spell in the 1980s and early 1990s. It starts out by chronicling the developing relationship between mee pok seller Johnny and prostitute Bunny, but soon takes an very unexpected turn.
I see Mee Pok Man as a somewhat X-rated (for the time) send-off of Channel 8 soap opera tropes, involving unlikely but sweet relationships that blossom between two very different people from different walks of life. In this case, the bovine-dim mee pok seller watches the beautiful but self-absorbed prostitute from afar, and gets his chance to show his love when she gets into a car accident and he takes her back home to care for her. There’s even that well-treaded trope of the girl’s diary entries being read out as a narrative voice-over: a lazy if convenient way to reveal her inner psyche.
But this developing romance is cut short before it can develop according to the expectations of the audience; when, in the crowning act of coitus, the girl unexpectedly dies (from internal bleeding, perhaps?). From there, the film veers hard towards extreme morbidity, as the increasingly deranged Romeo-aspirant sinks into madness, continuing to husband her slowly mummifying body as life goes on around him.
This premise really makes Mee Pok Man a bit of a one-trick pony. It is a spring trap designed to deliver a jolt to an audience no doubt accustomed to the trite pablum of local primetime television. I can see how Mee Pok Man might have revived Singaporean cinema back then by showing local audiences the subversive potential of the medium, especially in what was then a straight-laced, conservative Singapore.
The film is best viewed as a piece of environmental storytelling, serving as a visual counterpoint to the contemporary vision of Singapore as a spotless, efficient city. By chronicling the lives of street hookers and impoverished noodle sellers, the film serves as an often beautifully evocative visual reference to the grimy interstices between the gleaming facade. If anything, Mee Pok Man is a great showcase of Eric Khoo’s directorial eye and style – there are many stills from the film that would make great art posters. The film also protests the censorious impulses of the Government – it starts with brief flashes of boobs and genitalia, not for any narrative purpose, but to make a statement to the censors – testing the boundaries of what was allowed on film in Singapore at the time.
Unfortunately, the film hasn’t aged well in many other respects. By the standards of modern efforts, Mee Pok Man is deficient in many areas. The acting and dialogue are often abysmal – a function of the film’s seminal nature and its use of amateur actors. The characters are one-dimensional cutouts. The mee pok man Johnny, in particular, is an infuriatingly boring character: a barely articulate milquetoast who shuffles his way through the entire film. That kind of characterisation might have been intentional, in order to fit in with the twist, but it certainly doesn’t benefit the viewing experience in the first half of the film, when the audience is expecting it to be a sweet romance film, only to confront this milksop of a leading man. The film could do with a stern dose of editing – certain segments overstay their welcome, and there are some half developed plot threads that don’t seem to go anywhere – like the whole segue into Bunny’s odd, silent, snooping brother. The film lacks logical consistency and coherence in many areas – like why Bunny’s family didn’t appear to have filed a missing persons report for Bunny. And where did they dig up the actor for Bunny’s creepy Caucasian photographer boyfriend, who can’t even pronounce his words right?
Regardless of its defects, Mee Pok Man is a film worth watching once, if only to appreciate the service it did for the medium in Singapore. Now that I look back on it, I probably don’t regret watching it, but if I had to give advice to prospective viewers, try to think of the film in terms of its extrinsic merits instead of its inherent aesthetic virtues.
I give this film: 2.5 out of 5 diaries
The film was double-billed with an earlier Eric Khoo short called Pain, shot in monochrome, also grimy, and also characterised by a twist. Evocative in its approach in visually depicting pain and torture. Disturbing, grungy and somewhat anachronistic in its approach to storytelling – almost like a silent film. Better viewed as if a film student’s final-year project than something people would actually want to watch.