Cities around the world all have stories to share – each one built from the ground-up, rooted in capitalism and gentrification amid their regionally cultural and ideological bearings. Singapore’s red-light district, for the most part, is no different, and in the world of cinema, comes by way director Boi Kwong (Zombiepura) with his newest dramatic crime thriller, Geylang, paying homage to his auteur faves with an inherent keenness on titillating genre cinema that places the duality of right and wrong firmly under a very hazy microscope.
Lend all the nuance and grace and empathy as you may dare with Geylang. Going forward, it’s a tale that descends into violent entropy with characters all converging into catastrophe during one fateful night ahead of an election nomination. Kwong and co-scribe Link Sng penned the script which takes its inspiration from real-life crime stories, firstly introducing mullet-haired Fatty (Mark Lee), a pimp with a debt large enough to earn him an unfavorable visit from an impetuous shylock. We also meet Celine (Sheila Sim), an organizational employee who works to help streetwalkers and other women who are in danger.
The first half hour serves up an array of events enough to convey just how each of these characters fall into place. One pivotal moment finds Fatty struggling to obtain a six-figure cash stash to take a last minute trip overseas with his elderly father (Woon Sang Tau) who suffers from symptoms of Alzheimer’s. It isn’t long before Fatty gets attacked by a cigarette retailer named Ah Jie (Gary Lau), while Celine involves herself in the fiasco after receiving a peculiar message that leads her to Fatty’s car, and a gruesome discovery that only piles up the start of a harrowing nightmare for everyone. Other characters include a trick named Sun (Shane Mardjuki) who has specific designs on a prostitute named Shangri-La (Patricia Lin). This aspect of the film takes a grimdark turn pretty fast, culminating everything we see in Geylang as one crime escalates into a series of others to where our characters reach a point of no return.
Multiple flashbacks add just a little to the intrigue with a timeline that dates as far back as days, weeks and months, providing ample context with each reveal. It’s also worth noting that the only character who doesn’t get a series of flashbacks is the role of Sun, whose origins are shown in a series of photos on a wall featuring himself with his daughter. Invariably, Geylang assures you to feel something for its characters. Nevertheless however, the movie has no illusions about what kind of people its characters during its 87-minute runtime. All that happens, including the scrappy and violent fisticuffs and scuffles (with stunt sequences coordinated by Sunny Pang and his Ronin Action Group) is much ado with the need for money in this story, whether its romance, political ambitions, or even something as humane as saving the life of a loved one, and when the chips are down, no one is safe.
As with all things though, nobody is simply born evil. To wit, it’s when life’s tumultuous circumstances arise, per the sum of our choices and forces beyond our control that careful planning, when gone awry, can lead into desperation. Blood? Spilled. Hearts? Broken. Lives? Mostly torn apart. Alas, the only people who win in Geylang by the end have all managed avoiding being blackmailed, or mugged, or raped, or stabbed to death, or something even worse than all these. If you’re lucky, either you’re a crooked politician, or an ailing senior citizen caught in the chaos and the worst that happens is you shit yourself by accident.
Preambling Kwong’s unflinching and brutal crime noir is an opening credits intro that provides enough stock imagery and footage to get everyone’s proverbial feet wet, just shy of the first five minutes of Takashi Miike’s Dead Or Alive, of course. It’s much more subdued than that, but if the imagey of groceries and minimarts next to streetwalkers, sex toys and brothels and a title drenched in neon lights, all topped off with the slow-moving close-up of dying prostitute layered with an audible reported about the corpse of said prostitute doesn’t peak your interest into just what the heck Geylang‘s about, then I’m glad your interest in the movie got you as far as this review.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.