Earlier this week, at the gala premiere prior to Siew Lup's official theatrical run, the CEO of mm2 Entertainment (the production company behind the film) took to the stage to promote the movie, touting it as one that attempts to fill the erotic-thriller niche in the local film market, which has been dominated by the likes of other genres such as comedy and horror. And why shouldn't it, given the success of Hollywood's Fifty Shades adaptations, he argues. He also noted that the audiences at the screening were mostly male, and exhorted them to bring their female counterparts and spread the word.
He is right on some counts. There hasn't been a Singaporean movie quite like it in recent memory, except perhaps its predecessor Lang Tong靚 汤; (Siew Lup is the second instalment of director Sam Loh's planned femme fatale revenge trilogy) and the raunchy sex scenes are without a doubt gleefully audacious by local standards. But let's not harbour any illusions – Siew Lup is, unabashedly a movie that panders to the male gaze and to suggest anything less would be disingenuous.
Sex sells of course, as evidenced by its earlier festival run, where it was the first among more than a hundred films to sell out at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) last November, and there sure is a lot of sex in Siew Lup. And not just sex, but gratuitous violence; anyone vaguely acquainted with the culinary themes of Lang Tong (which translates loosely to "tasty soup") and Hong Kong's The Untold Story series ("人肉叉烧包" or literally "human flesh char-siew buns") will no doubt already have an idea about the unsavoury origins of the roast meat in this film.
Much like with Lang Tong, the director has decided to cast first- time actresses as the female leads. Rebecca Chen (whose day job as a dancer pays off handsomely on the big screen in the form of her svelte curves and athletic physique) stars as Mia, who starts an affair with Wu (played by a broodingly dashing Louis Wu). Halfway in the film, Wu has a change of heart and falls for another girl, the terminally-ill but temperament-wise milder Xuan who appears serendipitously in his life. The latter is played by Melody Low, styled to look like some buxomly J-pop or K-pop-type ingénue who, let's just say, also lets out some pretty choice noises during the sex scenes, reminiscent of the kind Japanese AV idols at work).say?
The decision to use fresh faces is not necessarily a good thing though, as the gulf in acting chops between the newcomers and the other more experienced actors is played out to stark effect. Chen, who arguably has the most challenging role in the movie, appears stiff and inexperienced next to her fellow actors. It's a shame, because it would have been interesting to see her delve more deeply into her character's journey from suffering ex-prostitute to indomitable femme fatale. Add the fact that her dialogue is unnaturally dubbed in a crisp Mandarin that doesn't even sound like it's from her voice, and the result is a wholly wooden and uninspiring performance.
On the other hand, the best acting goes to Sunny Pang, who plays Quan, the butcher husband of Mia. He manages to convey with nuance both frailty and brutality when a scene calls for it. Hardly surprising, considering he has had more than a decade of working in regional films over the past 10 years.
The problems with the film don't end there though. The storytelling is poor and the filmmakers do not seem interested in creating realistic set-ups, making it difficult for audiences to truly invest themselves in the film. Just to list a few: in the film, characters seem to have difficulty keeping their doors locked, constantly inviting trouble for themselves; there's a perverted voyeur on the loose in the film who seems to be omnipresent and ever ready with a recording device on hand to film Mia in the throes of passion; in the film's universe, murders seem to have no legal consequences; towards the end of the film, one particularly incriminating piece of evidence of a murder is left around carelessly – of all places – on the floor; Xuan's character is terminally-ill but it is never mentioned what she is suffering from – she certainly looks like she's in the pink of health for the most part. The list could go on and on. Again, not helping is how artificial the dialogue is in general (one particularly cringeworthy line was spouted by Xuan - "one of my dying wishes is to be here with the person I love – just like this").
In a post-Yangtze Cinema era when Singaporeans can get far more salacious content on the Internet for next to nothing, Siew Lup's undifferentiated offerings of softcore sex and violently-procured roast meat is tantamount to asking moviegoers to part with good money in exchange for less. Still, Loh deserves some credit for the boldness of his vision and for his conviction in pushing the boundaries of local films. One can only hope the final macabre dish he serves in the trilogy will come with a bigger dollop of solid storytelling.