Former ‘Straits Times’ journalist spotlights the Pinoy immigrant in first feature film
In 2006, a young Singaporean by the name of Ken Kwek was invited to a televised debate with the late strongman Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. At the time, the nation’s founding father—known the world over for successfully transforming Singapore to a First World country by curtailing civil liberties—was almost 89 years old, yet eager to discern the sentiments of the youth.
Kwek, who was then working as a political reporter for The Singapore Straits Times, delivered what he believed was his generation’s definitive message to the revered statesman: “Less control of press freedom, and less censorship; [for]otherwise, we will always be ruled by fear.”
“He wasn’t too pleased about it,” the British-educated Singaporean laughed as he recalled his once-in-a-lifetime dialogue with the historical leader during this interview with The Manila Times. “The lesson I learned having done that—even as I bow down to Mr. Lee for having done so much for Singapore—is that no one is absolutely right about anything and that surely, you can argue with a wise man.”
Kwek, who is first and foremost a filmmaker, also realized back then that there was no way he could pursue his passion in his homeland, since the Singapore government basically banned documentaries he had done after university in Cambridge.
“That’s why I turned to journalism,” he continued, “which also taught me a lot about the reality of different people in my country.”
By 2014, Kwek, who had gone into writing social satirical stage plays, finally decided to venture into his first feature film. Interestingly so, he chose to focus on the life of a Filipino immigrant in Singapore, the role of which he gave to Epy Quizon.
“I met Epy when I was out here for a play in 2012, which starred Lea Salonga and my friend [Singaporean superstar] Adrian Pang. It was [Atlantis Production’s] God of carnage. I also met Michael de Mesa and so many other artists here, but Epy and I really became friends.”
As the saying goes that everything happens for a reason, Kwek realized one day back in Singapore that the lead character of Onassis Hernandez—a Filipino businessman in Singapore—was perfect for Quizon.
“So I called him and said, hey, I’ve got something for you,” the director continued.
Handed to Quizon shortly was a script of a movie entitled Unlucky Plaza, a pun on the name of the mall—Lucky Plaza—where overseas Filipino workers in Singapore would gather on the weekends.
In the film, Quizon plays a single father who runs a promising lechon eatery in the budget mall. When a food scandal in the area happened his business is not spared. Left by his Singaporean wife, he becomes so hard up he can no longer pay rent, much more provide for his young son’s requests.
When he is further victimized by a financial scam, Onassis is forced toward a desperate move, and takes a group of people hostage in a designer bungalow and publicizes his demands on YouTube.
His captives include a financial guru (Adrian Pang); and his unhappy wife Michelle (Judee Tan) who has something going on with a pastor named Wen (Shane Mardjuki).
Onassis refers to them as “the real bad guys,” pointing the blame on them for his crime that captures the attention of authorities and international media, setting off anti-Filipino riots all over the city.
“It’s a black comedy and action film all rolled into one, and Epy was the only actor I knew who could deliver the incredible range of emotions the role needed—from a comic burbler to someone who is angry, and finally a scary hostage taker.”
In writing the movie, Kwek wanted to highlight several points: First, to show that many Filipinos around the world are not concentrated in domestic employment, and are in fact successful businessmen and professionals. Secondly, that even as Filipinos or other races who migrate to richer countries strive so hard to let go of who they are in the quest for financial success, their culture will always stay within their core.
And lastly, that there is a need for different people and different nationalities to learn to come to terms with each other as the world continues to get smaller because of globalization.
“It was my way of responding to the anti-Filipino sentiment in Singapore that coincidentally erupted just as I was putting this film together,” Kwek continued. “But then again, this tension between cultures is as old as the Greeks, so much so that in saying that, I don’t consider this film to be Singaporean or Filipino—it just happens to be showing two different cultures clashing, when the reality is that we all need each other to move forward.”
Kwek likened his message to his multi-cultural production team and cast for Unlucky Plaza. “We needed everyone—regardless of nationality—to put the film together.”
The result based—on its premiere as the opening film of the Toronto Film Festival in December 2014—is powerful.
“They had to add more screens because the movie was sold out,” Kwek modestly stated the fact.
The same happened when the movie opened for the Singapore International Film Festival, after which the reviews that ensued read:
“It is accessible but has something to say. It’s entertaining but has depth as well. This film really packs a punch…” [The Hollywood Reporter]
“Convincing characters, genuine scenarios… you can chalk up Unlucky Plaza as an indisputable win,” [Esquire Magazine].
“A great movie… [the kind]stays with you for a long time…” [M Magazine Singapore]
“It grabs your attention from its teaser of an opening and doesn’t let go until its strange, satisfying finish…” [Toronto International Film Festival]
Unlucky Plaza was also shown at the Warsaw Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Prix; and at the Kolkata International Film Festival where it received a nomination for the NETPAC Award.
All that said, Quizon agrees a hundred percent with his genius of a friend that the film, while delivering entertainment, shows how a good thing can come out of different people working together.
“Even in moviemaking, this can be the start of bridging the Asian film industry into one,” said the Filipino actor. “I for one will definitely ask Ken to direct a movie here very soon.”
Unlucky Plaza opens across the country on April 20, under the distribution of Viva Films.