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Djinn: A Taxi Driver Dreams of Perth
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
January 16, 2007 - 4:22 PM PST

"At the end of the 90s, Singapore was experiencing a brain drain..."

Singapore-born filmmaker Djinn, 38, made his feature debut with the horror cheapie Return to Pontianak (2001), which was successful enough to allow him to direct the much more polished, more mature Perth, recently released on DVD by Tartan Video. Lim Kay-tong stars as Harry Lee, a self-proclaimed "simple man" living in Singapore, who dreams of retiring to Perth. When he loses his job as a security guard, he takes another, working for a band of shady thugs, driving a Vietnamese prostitute, Mai (Ivy Cheng), to her various gigs. Since Harry has irreversibly cut himself off from his wife and grown son, he begins to transfer his paternal feelings to Mai. Unfortunately, this does not sit well with his new bosses. Perth has been compared to Taxi Driver, and, if nothing else, it shares with that film a sense of history, psychological realism, and fearlessness. Djinn, who journeys back and forth between Singapore and Los Angeles, was kind enough to respond to a series of questions, via e-mail, about the film.

First, I'm curious about the languages and dialects in this film. It surprised me to hear bits of English, even if the dialect was very heavy, and I needed subtitles.

In Singapore, we have four official languages: Malay (which is the official language as we sit astride the Malay archipelago... although Singapore is majority Chinese), Chinese (now predominantly Mandarin although some older generation types still break into dialects like Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese and Cantonese), Tamil (a southern Indian language and a true minority language although some words occasionally creep into popular use) and lastly but most important of all, English, the great compromise for racial stability. Since Singapore is a small country, like Jamaica, but smaller and more densely populated, we have ended up developing our own "Creole Pidgin," which we call Singlish. It's a harsh, staccato-sounding mix of English words with mainly Malay and increasingly Chinese. This language is itself involving. For example, as Singapore has always been an important port of call, the word for going in reverse is "Gostan" which is a bastardization of the nautical term "Go Astern." However we don't hear this in as much use these days as the government's "Speak Mandarin" campaign has come into effect.

Lim Kay-tong (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Brokedown Palace) gives an amazing performance in this. Did you write with him in mind?

Actually, no. I modeled the character in many ways after an uncle of mine who spent 30 to 40 years as a first mate on ships around the world. Like all sailors, he was fond of sharing his nautical lore (e.g., a trip up the Mekong during the Vietnam War, etc.) over several bottles of beer, or better still, hard liquor (my poor liver). Although I had in mind perhaps to find someone like my uncle to play the role (God forbid the real man himself), it was always a risk, as the role was heavily dialogue-driven. I couldn't shave off too much dialogue as it was crucial to the film for the characters to "empty talk."

I've always been a fond admirer of Kay Tong's work. At about the time we finally got the funding together for Perth, he looked suitably ripe for the role. So I decided on Kay Tong, and he was amazing to work with. It was the first role he had undertaken (and indeed after all the years his first lead role in a feature), wherein he abandoned somewhat his London stage training into some form of method acting which involved drinking from his extensive wine collection. It resulted in a fall (from the roof of his house) and a broken toe. The limp you see on screen is real! What's most amazing about Kay Tong was that he was playing opposite all these non-actor types; Victory Selvam, who plays Selveraja the taxi driver, is a real cab driver and Sunny Pang [who plays Angry Boy] is a bouncer/street fighter. They frequently went off page and he had to keep to his lines whilst steering them back, and he somehow managed to do this very well.

How did you arrive at Perth, of all places, as the dream place to retire? Is it really a retirement community for Singaporians?

It's our Miami. But even more so, it's our second city outside our little red dot ("red dot" is what they call Singapore on the map). The whole genesis occurred in frequent cab rides across town. Most of the taxi drivers, who never shy away from an opinion in "opinionless" Singapore, voiced a desire to emigrate to Perth, which I thought odd. At the end of the 90s, Singapore was experiencing a brain drain, a sort of white-collar exodus; however, this dream of Perth was totally working class!

Then I remembered my days spent in the Army Reserve. (In Singapore, we have an Israeli system military where the Reserve is the frontline). The ranking NCOs were extremely dissatisfied with the government's paper bias policy and felt slighted for promotions. They, too, mentioned Perth!

The final straw came when I completed the script and my uncle (without knowledge of the story) mentioned that he too was thinking of spending his savings either retiring to Perth or, at age 60, joining the Hawaiian iron man triathlon. On a side note, when I sent the script to Kay Tong much later, he was en route back from Tuscany and mentioned he was only dropping into Singapore for a day before going down to Perth to see his relatives! He now has a house there!

I noticed you often withdraw from the violence (at least up until the ending), setting up the camera across the room or looking through a doorway. Can you please talk about this technique?

The process of observation seems more unsettling and uncomfortable. I also tried to keep it to as long a take as possible to allow the audience to feel the full vent of Harry's fury as he expels it onto his unfortunate wife in the only way he is able to communicate. In a way, it's like a throwback to one of my favorite movie scenes ever, the last shot in The Bad Lieutenant (1992), where the camera runs on a long take from across the street as a car drives by [Harvey] Keitel's car and pumps him full of lead. Minutes after the action, the camera is still running with people walking by, oblivious.

Funny thing about the wife-beating scene was that the wife, Liu Qiulian (she was a name in Chinese drama in Singapore from the 80s) had mentioned to me her concern with Kay Tong. She had heard that, when in character, he would rarely hold back and had punched a couple of actors for real. Oddly, on the take, she decided to goad him on and call him names. But she was very streetwise; she tucked her head next to the cushion and blocked most of the punches with her arm. A couple got through, though, and she had some bruises. Fortunately, Kay Tong was a lousy puncher!

I see you worked with the Shaw Brothers. How different is that studio from the days of Sir Run Run and Runme?

The Singapore side of the organization I worked with mainly does distribution these days, although their last great contribution to world cinema was investing in Blade Runner! The guys in Singapore are from the son of Run Run whilst the son of Runme went the other way to Hong Kong. The strange thing about Shaw is their main office. It's very cinematic. It's on the 13th floor in a swanky skyscraper off Singapore's fashionable Orchard Road and it's like a set straight out of a Bruce Lee film. The whole place is mirrored and there is a second level with a Chinese parapet (perhaps they had recycled their sets?) and there are lots of old men (probably ex-filmmakers who did not fulfill their contracts) mulling around. Until recently, they were only on typewriters!

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"At the end of the 90s, Singapore was experiencing a brain drain..."
"I don't see any reason why we have to forsake historical fact in order to be dramatically more enticing..."

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Jeffrey M. Anderson
Author of our primer on the Iranian New Wave, Jeffrey M. Anderson has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Las Vegas Weekly and is a frequent contributor to Cinematical.

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