Secrets only ghosts can know

Review of The Blue Mansion, a film directed by Glen Goei and shot at Penang's Cheong Fatt Tze mansion. Released in 2009. The screening was held on April 10 at the Bellevue Hotel on Penang Hill, as part of Bellevue’s 2010 Inaugural Cultural Event.

Director Glen Goei.

Drama, intrigue, satire and revelations of family secrets await those who are lucky enough to get a chance to watch director Glen Goei’s latest film, The Blue Mansion.

The ghost of a recently deceased patriarch starts to roam the house where his family is still mourning his passing. He soon realises that his death may not have been all that natural. Two detectives have come to investigate the alleged crime and soon manage to reveal secrets within the family that they would have rather kept hidden.

Set in the impressive mansion in which all family members have congregated, “Pineapple King” Wee Bak Chuan (played by Patrick Teoh) wanders the halls where his widow Wee Siok Lin (Louisa Chong), two sons Liang and Meng (Kay Siu Lim and Adrian Pang, respectively) and daughter Pei Shan (Neo Swee Lin) battle it out amongst themselves for the rights to his fortune and legacy.

The title of the film is inspired by the historical mansion in which it is set. Glen Goei chose to film almost entirely in the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in Penang because he thought it the perfect backdrop for a story about wealth and opulence in Asian history and culture.

Goei explains: “The mansion itself is very much a character in the film. The Blue Mansion became almost a metaphor for Singapore – glitzy and charming on the outside, but the lives of the people who live in it aren’t as perfect as the surface suggests.”

Datuk Lim Chong Keat, who hosted the screening.

The original idea was to set the film in an old colonial mansion in Singapore, he says. Unfortunately, after months of searching, he had to accept the fact that functional and well-preserved colonial mansions in Singapore no longer existed. Goei then widened his search to Malaysia, where he found potential sites unstable and therefore, unsafe for film shooting. He finally stumbled upon Cheong Fatt Tze mansion and was fascinated by it. Not only did it have the atmosphere he needed, it suited him logistically as well.

The film is a landmark production for Goei. After all, it has been 11 years since his first hit, Forever Fever, the first Singaporean film to ever enjoy commercial release worldwide.

Blue Mansion premiered in late 2009 at the Pusan International Film Festival. Goei wanted it to showcase the complexities of Asian life and reveal a side of Asian culture not previously shown before to an international audience. “It is a film that looks at contemporary Asian societies, the patriarchal order we live in and the enormous cost that has placed on individuals.” Although the story is fictional, Goei acknowledges that the undertones are based on reality and “the observations of stories of people he has lived or worked with”.

Some have argued that the film is reminiscent of stories associated with certain influential families in Singapore, but Goei insists that the storyline is more fictional than anything else: “The film is primarily a murder mystery with many English sensibilities.”

He acknowledges though that in Asian society, criticism of culture and its many rigid practices is often met with strong resistance. Social and political satire is not easily accepted. The arts may be the only estate left which is not controlled by the government.

The idea for the film came when Goei was attending the funeral of a friend’s parent. A family drama ensued during the wake, making him think that there lay a microcosm of Asian life. And so, in the film, the ghost witnesses his own family revealing shocking secrets about themselves and their past as they try to uncover the mystery behind their father’s death.

Most of the cast are well-known Singaporean faces, but Malaysia’s talented Patrick Teoh plays the lead and delivers a strong performance filled with his signature comedic style. He comes across as a caricature of the typical Asian tycoon, small in stature but big in presence, and exerts a strong hold on his family even in death. Notable performances also come from the female cast, particularly Neo Swee Lin, who plays the quiet spinster daughter Pei Shan, who has been somewhat beaten down by her father’s expectations of whom she should and should not love. Tan Kheng Hua of Phua Chu Kang fame also shines as the desperate and sexy wife of Meng, Wee Bak Chuan’s slighted second son.

Quite surprisingly, sex and nudity feature in this film, which strives to stray from typical Asian film stereotypes. Emma Yong, who plays another ghost (that of Wee Mei Yee, the patriarch’s dead daughter-in-law) appears for the most part in a white wedding gown but then strips completely towards the dramatic end of the film, adding significant shock value. The film also strays from typical Asian cinematic fare in its dialogue – presented almost entirely in perfect English, sans Singaporean-Malaysian accents. While this may seem awkward for a film so steeped in its eagerness to portray typical Asian culture, Goei assures us that it is an accurate interpretation of Singaporean high society. Admittedly, that was a risky move because the film could not be pigeonholed when it came to promotion.

Shot entirely in Malaysia, with most of post-production work done in Kuala Lumpur, this film, although Singaporean, is very much a Malaysian product. Ironically, it will never be shown publicly to Malaysian audiences due to its graphic content and certain issues it touches on, which may be too sensitive to escape the local censorship board. For example, there is a scene that parodies the multi-cultural, multi-religious aspect of our culture. Goei notes that if he made some cuts he would be able to show the film on local shores. But this will not happen because of fi nancial constraints.

Furthermore, such cuts would compromise the authenticity of the film. However, special private screenings like the one I attended at Penang Hill are likely to increase in frequency after the film has completed the international circuit.

The Blue Mansion was a labour of love for Goei. He had help from several international talents such as Australian film editor Kate James and production designer Ian Bailie, who previously worked on Hollywood blockbusters such as Atonement. The film was shot on widescreen and has a moody feel, courtesy of director of photography Larry Smith (who has done cinematographic duties on Stanley Kubrick film sets). Impressively, Goei managed to pull together the cast and crew without support from the Malaysian government, further adding to his work being a completely independent production.

The Blue Mansion has been screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Tokyo International Film Festival, among others, to encouraging response.

Shakila is a Penangite now in KL working with the Malaysian Nature Society. She is the editor of a nature magazine and contributes to various lifestyle publications.

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