Director: Kelvin Sng
Cast: Mark Lee, Gurmit Singh, Jazreel Low, Gan Mei Yan, Lai Meng, Chua Jin Sen, Royston Ong
Runtime: 1 hr 33 mins
Released By: Golden Village Pictures & Scorpio East Pictures
Opening Day: 3 January 2013
Synopsis: Taxi! Taxi! is a social comedy set in the metropolitan city-state of Singapore, told through the encounters of two characters who are in what is widely perceived as the most sociable profession on the island – taxi drivers.
Inspired by famed blogger Dr Cai Mingjie’s real life accounts as a taxi driver in his bestseller “Diary of a Taxi Driver: True Stories From Singapore's Most Educated Cabdriver”, the movie follows the trials and tribulations of a retrenched microbiology scientist, Professor Chua, as he turns to taxi driving after several failed job attempts. Along the way, he befriends (although they didn’t quite start off as friends from the get-go) a veteran taxi driver, Ah Tau.
The two men, who appear to be polar opposites of each other in every aspect from educational levels, personalities, attitudes toward life and even the languages that they speak, eventually find themselves interdependent and influencing each other in ways that they probably had never imagined possible.
A fish out of water, Professor Chua gradually learns to move out of his comfort zone and sheltered life in the research lab, and adapt to the real world on the streets of Singapore. Yet, his biggest challenge of all, has to be: breaking the truth about his change of profession to his uninformed family – his social-conscious mother-in-law, his elitist son who idolizes his career as a scientist, and his wife whom he vowed to never let her have to worry about the bread and butter issues throughout their marriage. Can he hide it from them forever? And will they still respect him as head of the house if he reveals it to them?
Ah Tau, on the other hand, has problems of a different nature. His son, Jia Jia, believes that his absent mother is on a trip around the world, and he has to continuously find ingenious ways to keep the boy’s belief alive, so as not to shatter his hope of seeing her again. Also, badly influenced by his own street Singlish that he uses to communicate with his passengers, Jia Jia spouts Singlish like a typical taxi driver whenever he speaks, and his kindergarten teacher who promotes “Good English” is surely not impressed. A loving father but whose means are limited by his capabilities, can Ah Tau provide what’s best for his son?
Bugged by their own individual troubles and initial aversion to each other, the two unlikely buddies soon discover that they can actually help one another out, and show the other what he has never seen from his usual position all along. They finally realize that life’s dead ends can actually turn to passable roads, if you just approach them from a different angle and with a different attitude!
You might recall a certain taxi driver by the name of Dr Cai Mingjie a few years back, who was a microbiology researcher prior to his change of profession and was hence dubbed ‘Singapore’s most educated taxi driver’. Through his blog chronicling his experiences as a taxi driver, he garnered a following that numbered a million, prompting offers of employment and also a published compilation of his stories back in April 2010 which became a top-selling book that year.
‘Taxi! Taxi!’ credits Dr Cai’s real-life story as inspiration, with Gurmit Singh’s character Professor Chua See Kiat modelled after him. Also a microbiology researcher, Prof Chua likewise makes the leap from lab to cab after being fired from his job and not having any success at subsequent corporate jobs or job interviews. For fear of losing face however, he keeps it a secret from his family, trying his best to keep up their existing lavish lifestyle - until of course one by one, wife (Jazreel Low), son (Royston Ong) and grandmother (Lai Meng) inadvertently find out the truth.
There is much potential for a tale of a highly qualified local professional who finds himself jobless after being replaced by the so-called “foreign talent” to be milked for social commentary – unfortunately, besides the tangential mention in one or two scenes, screenwriters Boris Boo, Lee Chee Tian and Violet Lai (with story credits going to Boo, Rebecca Leow, Chan Pui Yin and director Kelvin Sng) largely keep the movie politically correct. Instead, they fashion this as an uplifting story about perseverance and determination, reflected not just in Prof Chua’s life but also in Mark Lee’s character Ah Tau.
The pairing of Gurmit Singh and Mark Lee is something to watch in itself – after all, this is only the second time since ‘One Leg Kicking’ that the two most gifted comedians representing two ends of the language (and might we add, channel) spectrum in Singapore are working together. Shrewdly, the screenwriters tailor their characters to Gurmit and Mark’s strengths – such that while Gurmit gets to speak perfect English as the overqualified taxi driver who at the start regards his own profession with disdain, Mark Lee remains in firm ‘beng’ territory as the loutish Mandarin-speaking one who embraces his taxi driving job wholeheartedly and with pride.
It might have seemed a creative risk at the start fashioning Prof Chua and Ah Tau as “Odd Couple” buddies, but it is one that truly pays off tremendously. No matter that Mark Lee can almost play the brash dialect-spewing type with his eyes close, there is no one else that does it as hilariously as he does. Gurmit complements him perfectly as the mild-mannered opposite whom Mark Lee’s Ah Tau shows the ropes of taxi driving to, and some of their best scenes riff on misunderstandings as a result of the latter’s bad English as well as their differing attitudes towards their line of work.
In particular, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie is the unlikely friendship that develops between Prof Chua and Ah Tau. Making the most of his lead cast, first-time feature film director Kelvin Sng unfolds an amusing, entertaining and ultimately heartwarming portrait of two individuals from different rungs of the social ladder who are trying in their own respective lives to be better than their circumstances and encouraging each other along in the process.
The juxtaposition of Prof Chua – who has not only to first swallow his own pride at taking up a job which he clearly thinks is beneath him but also to win the trust and respect of his family members thereafter – with that of Ah Tau – who has to learn to become a more responsible father to his son (Youtube sensation Chua Jin Sen) – is interesting, though admittedly the film could benefit from a much less heavy-handed approach especially in the more dramatic scenes. In particular, a late twist that supposedly serves as an awakening for Ah Tau is simply too caricatured to be believable, and culminates in an equally far-fetched climax that would have been unbearable were it not for the well-played performances of Gurmit and Mark Lee.
Yes, besides their comedic talent and lively back-and-forth repartee, both actors also lend surprising depth to their roles. In this regard, Gurmit gets a hand from Mandarin-speaking actress Jazreel Low, who gives a dignified and heartfelt performance in the scenes she shares with Gurmit. Mark Lee and Jin Sen also make a comical father-and-son pair – especially in their ‘Kee Chiew’ scenes together – and prove to be unexpectedly poignant in the later half of the film when both finally confront the fact that they only have each other to depend on.
Like most local films, ‘Taxi! Taxi!’ boasts certain apparent flaws – such as ham-fisted melodrama, poor continuity and bad CGI (it must have been difficult mounting cameras on the taxi cabs and driving along the actual roads) - but despite its blemishes, there is a moving and inspirational story here about finding the courage to make a fresh new start in life, whether in terms of family or in employment. There is also an important lesson in according due respect to each and every profession – no matter the social stereotype – which pertains particularly to taxi drivers here. After all, you only need to think about how your Christmas shopping might be even more of a hassle were it not for these drivers on the road to realise their significance.
(Often hilarious and heartwarming thanks to the chemistry between two of Singapore’s best comedians, this is a surprisingly entertaining story of hope and perseverance in spite of life’s circumstances)
Review by Gabriel Chong