Director: Ong Kuo Sin
Cast: Chen Tian Wen, Liu Ling Ling, Marcus Chin, Roy Loi, Jaime Teo, Tosh Zhang, Hong Hui Fang, Zhang Wei, Ezann Lee, Jim Lim, Hayley Woo, Zhang Wen Xiang, Daren Tan, Silver Ang, Gadrick Chin
Runtime: 1 hr 34 mins
Released By: mm2 Entertainment & Clover Films & Shaw
Opening Day: 3 December 2015
Synopsis: Born on 9 Aug 1965, Eric Kwek Hock Seng takes it upon himself to the symbol of national pride. He follows every national campaign with great support and interest. Raised in a predominantly Dialect/Mandarin speaking environment, English was a hard language to master for Eric; especially with his family thriving in a local Getai business. However, Eric wants to change all of that by adding English lyrics into Chinese songs albeit to strong objection from his family and friends. Undeterred, Eric Kwek sets on a musical journey that sees him through mostly lows and finally hits a high when he is at the ripe old age of 50. This film aims to highlight the value that no matter how old you are, you must believe and persist in your aspirations. You must believe in yourself to make yourself unbelievable.
You have every right to be sceptical about ‘Mr Unbelievable’, a movie which probably wouldn’t have been made if not for the runaway popularity of the music video of the same name. Featuring our very own Golden Horse Best Actor nominee Chen Tianwen as a fictional singer named Eric Kwek that is based upon famous ’70s Singaporean singer Huang Qing Yuan, that video – which was produced as a teaser for the Channel 5 sitcom ‘Spouse for House 2’ – with its ‘mo-lei-tau’ blend of English lyrics into a popular Hokkien melody became a sensation to the tune of 3.2 million views on Youtube and Facebook. So seeing as how he was only a supporting character with little backstory in ‘Spouse’, its creator Ong Kuo Sin has gone ahead to write and direct a feature film about Eric that spans the 1980s to present, fashioned as the tale of an underdog who never loses faith in his talent.
As opportunistic as it may seem, ‘Mr Unbelievable’ proves its worth by being hilarious and heartfelt. Oh yes, Chen does put on his signature floral shirts and enormous wig to deliver more of his kitschy blend of Hokkien/ English tunes, but beyond that, there is genuine fun to be had in the (mis)adventures of a self-obsessed getai singer who stumbles upon what he thinks is his calling in life after the Government’s ban on dialects in the 1980s threatens to make him and his trade irrelevant. Chen’s larger-than-life portrayal of Eric continues to be entertaining in and of himself, but he is in unbelievably good company here next to Liu Ling Ling, Marcus Chin, Tosh Zhang and even Roy Li Feihui, all of whom play their respective supporting roles with panache and verve.
Chen and Liu have an understated chemistry as a couple in their 50s, the latter working as a beer lady at the coffee shop who is fiercely protective of Eric but is sadly unappreciated. The same can be said of Zhang’s similarly loyal part-time assistant to Eric named Lawrence, who squats by his side below the sight of the camera ready to hand Eric a few stalks of roses or a bunch of broccoli during the filming of his signature MV. In a somewhat different league is Lee’s Ah Fei, his timid soft-spoken once-fellow getai disciple who becomes an extremely successful music arranger; one of the funniest scenes of the film is Eric and Ah Fei’s reunion at a movie set 25 years after a misunderstanding left the former feeling bitter. Last but not least is Chin’s Master Lo Man, whom Eric has an equally bitter falling out after his teacher objects to his idea of singing them Hokkien songs in English; a running joke that is surprisingly effective has the presumed dead Master Lo appear as a ghost to Eric to ‘knock some sense’ into him at crucial junctures.
Yet it isn’t just humour that writer-director Ong is after; rather, he aims for pathos with each one of these relationships. Though a sequence that sees Liu’s Man Li perform a Shaolin-style stunt out of love for Eric is a tad over-the-top, their romance feels otherwise grounded and real, and a pivotal scene where Eric dedicates his titular song to Man Li after finally coming to appreciate Man Li’s love for him is truly moving. Nicely affecting too is Eric’s reconciliation with Ah Fei, especially as the former comes to terms with how his hubris in his younger days had caused much anguish and cost him the opportunity to be with someone whom he deeply loved then. And without spoiling the surprise for what it is worth, let’s just say that Eric also does eventually make up with his Master, and Chen and Chin make the most out of a somewhat clichéd twist.
Yes, in spite of a deus ex machina that tries to explain why Master Lo objected to Eric dating his daughter Ah Hua (Jaime Teo) all those years ago as well as just why Lawrence is such a devoted fan, Ong has crafted an unexpectedly neat story that gives good closure to the proceedings in the past and present. A subplot which originates from Eric’s younger days to explain just how he came to record his one and only album ‘Sandcastle In My Heart’ has a nice tie-in with the competition that Eric registers for in a last-ditch attempt to make it as a singer; and even a minor detail as why Eric was abandoned as a baby in front of Master Lo’s house is not simply taken for granted. Though not quite so subtle or equally successful, Ong deserves credit for trying to work in the product placements (like a certain health product/ co-sponsor named Vita Realm) as well as the numerous cameos from the likes of Hong Huifang, Zhang Wen Xiang and Dr Jiajia into his story.
Like we said, it is understandable if you think ‘Mr Unbelievable’ is no more than a cash-grab attempt at a fad, but as much as it is true that this movie wouldn’t exist if not for the MV which preceded it, that hasn't meant that it isn’t in itself entertaining in its own right. Chen continues to bring much heart and mirth to the titular character, but more importantly, its creator Ong does not rest on these laurels or on audience goodwill alone; indeed, there is inspiration and conviction in his origin story of the man who had got us ‘stunned like vegetable’ with his kitschy retro song and dance. And for good measure, Ong has thrown in his personal tribute to our nation’s ‘un-un-un-un-unbelievable’ progress over the past 50 years with a touching epilogue sung by Eric that is as good a capper as any to our Golden Jubilee year.
(To say it is un-un-un-un-unbelievably hilarious and heartfelt may be slight hyperbole, but there is no denying this ‘biopic’ of the man behind the MV is funny, moving and very, very entertaining)
Review by Gabriel Chong