Singaporean director Jason Lai's feature-film debut stars pop singer Kit Chan as a talk-show host forced to confront deadly decisions.
It's perhaps apt that Ms J Contemplates Her Choice comprises a scene revolving around a teacher and her students discussing a poem by Percy Shelley: what the British writer once proclaimed about poetry - as an art – being essential in the consolidation of morality and a civil society, Singaporean director Jason Lai has put into action with a film combining a flair for audio-visual imagination with a poised and no less furious indictment of the lack of morality in modern life.
Bowing at the Singapore International Film Festival on Dec. 6, Ms J offers a very interesting contrast to the event's equally social-conscious but much less arty curtain-raiser, Ken Kwek's riotous satire Unlucky Plaza. While essentially a thriller centering around that very old chestnut of the genre – a mysterious caller's deadly mind games to force a protagonist to confront her past – Ms J lives up to its title by adding a much more reflective and existential layer to its proceedings.
By depicting how characters react (or not) when placed in moral dilemmas, Lai and his co-writer Yvonne Loh delivers a melancholic view on Singaporean social malaise brought forth by subtle hints in the dialogue and imagery painting the tropical island-state as an eerie bastion of alienation. With its depiction of Singapore as some kind of cold dystopia – bolstered by sequences of the city shown as snapshots of depopulated landscapes – comparisons could certainly be drawn with Ho Tzu Yen's even more futuristic Here, which Lai co-produced and steered towards a berth at the Directors' Fortnight sidebar at Cannes in 2009.
Ms J is less subversive in its aesthetics and more accessible in its storytelling than Here. It's nod to the mainstream lies in the presence of singer-songwriter Kit Chan and veteran actress Xiang Yun, two of the most iconic figures in Singaporean showbiz whose following would certainly help propel the film beyond niche arthouse audiences at home. With its striking camerawork, soul-searching theme and a plot set out to intrigue, Ms J is well-placed for a healthy run in independent festivals abroad seeking an artistic probe into the heart of darkness in Asian cities mostly flaunted by the mass media as bustling, efficient metropolises.
The Ms J in the title alludes to Jo Young (Chan), well-known for hosting a hip and snazzy radio program in which she and her co-host (real-life DJ Bobby Tonelli) provide callers with relationship advice drenched in mockery and sarcasm. Her carefree existence and heightened self-belief is seemingly in deep contrast to her elder sister Yan (Xiang), a schoolteacher struggling to induce her students to think beyond pragmatism – thus her difficulties in getting her charges to be interested in Shelley's famous line about springtime after winter, as the teenagers question its value as an exam subject and its relevance in an equatorial city that's summer all year round.
It's a land where culture is deemed beyond the pale: Yan dismays of news about parents burning books to celebrate the end of their children's exams, while Jo's bosses cast their eyes only on soaring audience ratings which will allow them to conduct "business as usual". Meanwhile boys take pride in outwitting each other by twisting traditional sayings (and values): they want their material goods and they want them now, because "an iPad in the hand is worth two in the shop". All doesn’t bode well for the next generation, and it's a problem manifested in the lack of moral awareness in Yan's son Nick (Marcus Chiau) and Jo's daughter Sarah (Sierra Bustos) when a choice is foisted on them between their own interests and others'.
What's lacking in the children seems to be merely suppressed in the consciousness of their parents - and it's Jo who blinks first in this game of moral brinksmanship, as her perennially mordant veneer cracks when people begin to die after her on-air conversations with a man asking her to decide who he should kill and who he should leave alive. Jo's choice sets off a chain of events which will lead to a rising body count further down the line, but also some long-repressed trauma slowly emerging back into her consciousness.
Admittedly, the film begins to wobble and flutter as the big reveal nears, with lines becoming ever more unnecessary expositional and stilted – especially in the Mandarin-conducted conversations between the siblings, and also within a narrative strand running in parallel to the one in the present, and involving a young couple played by Shane Pow and Seraph Sun. But Lai should be credited in refraining from melodramatic closure, and in persisting with his decision to outline his characters' behavior as hardly coherent and mostly driven by self-preservation; such is the enigma and darkness of human nature, and this gloom view of the status quo – of Singapore and Singaporeans – is brought forth well by Brian MacDairmant's cinematography. While not exactly a full-fledged success, Ms J signals a promising, cinematic storyteller in the wings, perhaps pondering over his next move.