“Perth”, the latest release from Tartan’s Asia Extreme label (Region 2), comes from a rather unlikely place, namely Singapore, a country not exactly known for violent or controversial cinema. The film was written and directed in 2004 by the oddly named Djinn, who had previously been responsible for the awful horror outing “Return to Pontianak”, a low budget attempt to cash in on the modern Asian horror boom. Here, Djinn turns his hand to gritty urban drama with far more success, offering up a bleak insight into the seedier side of his native land with “Perth”, which has been described (with good reason) as the country’s equivalent of Martin Scorsese’s classic “Taxi Driver”.
The plot is certainly familiar, following Harry Lee (played by Singaporean television veteran Lim Kay Tong) a 51-year old man fired from his job as a security guard who becomes a taxi driver, driven by his goal of saving enough money to emigrate to the supposedly utopian city of Perth, Australia. After taking on a job ferrying prostitutes to their clients, he becomes obsessed with one of the girls, and eventually his growing sickness at the moral degeneracy he sees everywhere but in himself erupts into bloodshed.
“Perth” starts off with Harry being portrayed as an eccentric, though not unlikeable man, whose occasional violent fantasies and self delusion give hints of his growing psychosis. As such he makes for a more human character than Travis Bickle, being socially capable, with friends and even a wife, and less of an enigmatic loner. Although the use of his voiceover narration does give the film an intimate and introspective feel, Harry is a relatively open book, with most of his character coming out through conversations with others. Indeed, whereas much of “Taxi Driver” was taken up with Bickle roaming the streets in loneliness and disgust or exercising in his room, “Perth” on the other hand features a great many lengthy scenes of Harry simply hanging around with his friends, drinking beer and complaining with increasing hypocrisy about life and moral decay in modern Singapore.
As a result, the film is actually quite funny during its first half, with Djinn allowing the sense of frustration to build subtly in the background before finally unleashing Harry’s anger during a shockingly brutal bout of wife beating which shatters any illusions the viewer may have had about the previously harmless protagonist. From here on, the proceedings descend rapidly into nihilism and violence, made all the more effective by its earlier emotional grounding and air of sympathy, and the inevitable climatic orgy of death is suitably shocking in its intensity.
Djinn directs in a manner which is stylish without being overly flashy, thankfully refraining from too much visual trickery. This gives the film a believably seedy feel, and Djinn shows a great eye for detail throughout, bringing the characters and dark underside of the city to convincing life in naturalistic and increasingly claustrophobic fashion. Although the film is an obviously low budget affair and was shot on DV, Djinn’s talent shines through and marks him as a director to watch.
Certainly, “Perth” works on a number of levels, both as a gripping, visceral and disturbing piece of film making, and as a surprisingly thoughtful character study. By slowly drawing the viewer into the protagonist’s crumbling world, director Djinn adds an emotional aspect absent from the similarly themed “Taxi Driver”, and in doing so offers something which is in many ways even more rewarding and tragic.
The DVD comes with two commentaries, the first of which is by director Djinn himself, who turns out to be an eloquent and entertaining host, providing a good number of anecdotes, expanding on the underlying political and social themes, and going into detail regarding his attempts to give the production a specifically Singaporean aspect. The second commentary by lead actor Lim Kay Tong is equally interesting, providing more insight into the character of Harrym and again underlining how his struggle represents a number of local concerns.
Both commentaries refer several times to the obvious “Taxi Driver” comparison, with Lim revealing that while Scorsese’s film was a definite influence, an attempt was made to present a more emotional portrait of a man’s descent into violence, something which is certainly apparent in “Perth”.
Other extras include a handful of deleted scenes, as well as a fascinating set design featurette in which Djinn describes how Harry’s apartment in particular reflects his personality, adding a layer of depth to the film which may not have been apparent on first viewing.
Djinn (director) / Djinn (screenplay)
CAST: Kay Tong Lim … Harry Lee
Qiu Lian Liu
A. Panneeirchelvam … Selvam
Stefanie Budiman … Maid
Ivy Cheng … Mai
Sunny Pang … Angry Boy Lee