||Singaporean director Kelvin Tong’s fourth feature-length film, Men in White, begins with the following warning: “Danger! The following film is totally devoid of logic, morals, and taste. If you have a weak stomach, you have five seconds to flee.” On first reading this opening text, one might view it as a warning to viewers that they’re about to experience a torture porn-style horror film in the spirit of Saw, Hostel, or any number of Takashi Miike films. It’s definitely a throwback to the beginning of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) when actor Edward Van Sloan warned the audience with a similar spiel.
But what’s different here is that Men in White isn’t a horror film at all, but is instead a comedy with supernatural elements. Full of completely random humor, nonsensical situations, a CGI animated public service announcement about dating in the afterlife, and not one, not two, but THREE rap music videos, Men in White is clearly striving to imitate the “mou lei tau” comedy-stylings of Stephen Chow during his early 90s heyday. Unfortunately for director Kelvin Tong and perhaps more unfortunately for viewers at home, the film never comes close to those dizzying comic heights.
Men in White kicks off with an opening sequence involving a typical Singaporean girl being haunted in a creepy apartment complex. The visuals look to be filmed very much in the style of the Pang Brothers’ film The Eye, right down to the ominous green filter. This sequence initially plays as a spot-on imitation of Asian horror, but visual and dialogue-based cues suggest that these scenes are meant to be more parody than pastiche. Like Kelvin Tong’s earlier film, the Focus First Cuts-financed Love Story, this opening sequence turns out to be, in fact, a total fakeout. What the audience has been watching for the first five minutes has been nothing more than a film-within-a-film, one that is being watched by two ghosts, the obnoxious B-boy wannabes, Hip and Hop (Ben Yeung and Xavier Teo).
In addition, this second phase of the film is actually the work of a ghostly videographer named Sunny, who stays hidden from view for most of Men in White’s short running time. With his constant filming, Sunny proposes to show the audience the secret life of ghosts in Singapore, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Hip, Hop, and Sunny share an apartment with motley crew of apparitions: an elderly woman named Madam Wong (Alice Lim), who occasionally haunts her son’s home, constantly cooking and cleaning to pick up the slack for a lazy maid and a horrible daughter-in-law; the certifiably nuts Ah Leng, who abducts any living person who notices him; the badminton champ Ah Boon (Shawn Chen), who likes to keep to himself; and Wan Yi (Ling Lee), a young woman who choked to death on a fishball while eating at a bustling local café.
Through the footage shot by Sunny, we learn the “rules” of Singaporean ghosts. For example, they prefer to come out at night because the weather is too hot, and they can, quite surprisingly, procreate with each other. Perhaps the most memorable quirk is the fact that Singaporean ghosts can’t eat food other than the oranges and roast pork put out as offerings for the dead or they’ll run the serious risk of coming down with a bad case of phantasmagoric diarrhea. Clearly, the film’s ghost mythology is idiosyncratic to say the least.
Interrupting this faux-documentary style is the injection of two major conflicts into the narrative. The first occurs when a geeky ghost named David (David Aw) decides to join the group. David seems harmless at first, but he soon proves to a bit of a bastard, slowly squeezing Ah Boon out of the group and making nice with his unrequited love Yan Li in the his absence. The second conflict is the renovation of the abandoned apartment that the ghosts have been haunting all these years. Dressing themselves up as mummies, devils, and werewolves, the remaining ghosts hope to scare away the prospective apartment owner and keep their home as is.
Will the ghosts be able to keep their apartment? When will Ah Boon return to the fold? What’s up with David? And who the heck is this Sunny guy anyway? These are the questions that permeate the last half of the film, and all are answered to some degree by story’s end. I’m not sure it all makes any logical sense, but of course, one must remember the warning displayed at the beginning of the film.
With Men in White, Kelvin Tong demonstrates a certain kind of versatility, as this film is a complete 180-degree turn from the ponderous self-consciousness of Love Story. Anyone who can go from dead serious art house film to an unapologetically lowbrow comedy can’t take himself all too seriously as a filmmaker. As mentioned before, Men in White is a throwback to the “mo lei tau” comedies of Hong Kong cinema’s glory days, complete with a scattershot comedy style and little interest in narrative logic or verisimilitude. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have Stephen Chow. Hell, it doesn’t even have Nick Cheung. It’s not that the actors are terrible (although to be sure, Xavier Teo’s and Ben Heng’s Hip and Hop get more obnoxious as the film wears on); it’s just that Shaun Chen, Ling Lee, and David Aw aren’t particularly charismatic or interesting to watch.
I would argue that, unlike the director’s previous film Love Story, Men in White possesses a distinct local flavor, not only in terms of its use of dialect and slang, but also in the way that it pokes fun at the governmental powers-that-be, the country’s cultural mores, and the various quirks of its citizenry. On a global level, the film references everything from Hideo Nakata’s Ring to Takashi Miike’s Audition, with even a joke at the expense of Taiwanese melodramas sprinkled in for good measure. Still, none of that really adds up to any gut-busting belly laughs. At best, Men in White is likely to elicit mild chuckles or perhaps an occasional knowing smile. As I suggested before, it’s a far cry from Stephen Chow.
In the end, Men in White is a disappointing film, especially in light of the potential Tong demonstrated in his earlier hit, The Maid, a horror film in which he was able to meld a visually arresting arthouse style with more commercially viable impulses. As a comedy, Men in White is only moderately amusing, and the shoddy production values, not to mention the various dead spaces that exist between the so-called “funny parts” makes it somewhat of a chore to watch at times. There are flashes of brilliance scattered here and there, but ultimately, Men in White suggests that Kelvin Tong is a talented filmmaker who is clearly capable of better. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)