Director Ken Kwek (below) takes us behind the scenes of Unlucky Plaza – a tale of policemen (real and fake), Pam Oei’s repertoire of vulgarities and the trouble with tow trucks.

The Making And Near Un Making Of Ken Kweks Unlucky Plaza

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. Yes, Ken Kwek’s last film, Sex.Violence.FamilyValues, was banned in both Singapore and Malaysia.

He’s made another film, and no, this one hasn’t been banned. The cleverly titled Unlucky Plaza, which took two years from script to screen, and was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in December last year, opens April 16 at a cinema near you. Part action flick, part social satire, more nuanced than the local comedies we’re used to, it’s a flick that looks set to start a new genre of Singapore film. 

Kwek takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of Unlucky Plaza, which stars Epy Quizon, Adrian Pang, Judee Tan, Shane Mardjuki, Guo Liang, Janice Koh and Pam Oei. It’s a dark comedy, a tale of emigre Onassis Hernandez, who resorts to taking people hostage after a deal to save his diner (no prizes for guessing where it is) goes down the proverbial drain.

The film’s tagline says it all: “Sh*t hits the fan in the world’s safest city.” If that, and the movie trailer, doesn’t pique your interest, just stick to Cinderella.

Was it tricky to film?
“It wasn’t a very complicated shoot logistically, barring a few action sequences. We didn’t have a huge budget and had to be very efficient. I wanted to devote a lot of time to the performances, to get the most complex and nuanced characterisations out of the actors, so we spent a fair bit of time rehearsing.” 

What was the hardest scene to film?
“The most difficult scene to film was, unexpectedly, one of the most straight-forward. It was a dialogue scene in a car, between the protagonist and his son. We didn’t have enough money for a proper car rig and filmed the scene using a tow truck. Have you ever sat in a car towed by a tow truck? It bobs up and down like a b*tch. I think the actors got car sick. Or tow sick.”

Any funny/unfortunate incidents?
“At one point, the police came on set. We were filming a protest scene in Siglap. Some residents of a nervous disposition thought it was a real demonstration and called the cops on us. A few journalists showed up as well. I wondered if I was going to be arrested for a crime I didn’t know I had committed. You can get arrested in Singapore for quite little, these days.”

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The scene that nearly unmade Unlucky Plaza. (This is one of the scripted police cars, by the way.) Kwek explains the scene: “The police have descended on the site of the hostage crisis. We had a hundred extras just outside the photograph, ardent protestors waiting to cheer, jeer and rampage as the police struggle to negotiate with the hostage-taker.” And then the real police showed up.

Did the actors tend to improvise, or did you follow the script to the T?
“We did improvisations in rehearsals before the shoot, and if anything sparkled I’d make those changes immediately in the script. But once the cameras got rolling, we had to be quite disciplined about getting the film finished on schedule, so I kept improvisations to a minimum. All the main actors in Unlucky Plaza – Epy, Adrian, Judee, Shane and Guo Liang – cut their teeth in the theatre, so they’re all excellent improvisors. Even the actors who made cameo appearances, like Pam Oei and Janice Koh, are experienced improvisors. Pam – who’s really better known as a cuddly Dim Sum Dolly, or as Kwek’s wife – added a litany of expletives to my already swear word-ridden dialogue.”

Your films tend to be satirical rather than outright funny. Tell us why.
“That’s just how I see the world – as a dark and funny place. It’s often the best way to cope with the madness around us.”

(Spoiler alert: DON’T read on if you want the film to come as a complete surprise.)

From a plot point-of-view, did Epy’s character not consider that a helicopter is perhaps not the best getaway vehicle? Did he think it would fly to the Philippines?
“I think he was desperate enough to believe he could get a rocket to the moon if he displayed enough violence to innocent people. That is the mentality of the hostage taker.” 

If the movie starts with all the main characters alive and telling their stories on TV, then we know the ending already – they’re all alive. Does that not kill the suspense of the kidnapping scene?  
“Some people feel it does, others don’t. I designed it that way because I’m less interested in what happens than in how the characters get there: What did these ordinary people do to get themselves into the extraordinary and horrible predicament of being held hostage by an angry, desperate anti-hero?”

Unlucky Plaza opens in Singapore theatres on April 16. Local film buffs, catch The Projector’s sneak preview with a post-show Q&A with director Ken Kwek and leading man Epy Quizon.

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Post-filming: an ebullient Kwek with Epy Quizon (centre) and co-producer Leon Tong, whom Kwek describes as “an incredibly skillful producer” and “an incredible guy”. It was Tong who dealt with the (real) police when they arrived on the film set. He also engineered one of the prosthetic effects in a major action sequence, even though he isn’t formally trained in effects.

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Quizon breaks his hostage-taker character while Pam Oei gets a quick touch-up. 

Photography: Kelly Fan