Reviewed by 1. Wong Lung Hsiang 2. Soh Yun-Huei
Director: Jack Neo
Writing Credits: Jack Neo
Cast: Huang Wen Yong, Xiang Yun, Shawn Lee, Megan Zheng, Joshua Ang, Ho Wen Long
Year Released: 2003
1. Review by Wong Lung Hsiang
Rating: ** (out of four stars)
Jack Neo admitted that he was deeply touched by The Children of Heaven, and cried shamelessly in the cinema. However, his remake of this Iranian sleeper hit must be regarded as purely exploitative.
After slamming the Singapore government in I Not Stupid, he now turns his satirical eye onto Malaysia. Neo cunningly secretes several episodes of Singapore-Malaysia political disputes of the past few years into a story about kampong (village) boys' love-hate relationships. In a sense this rural story, set in 1965, can be considered a hybrid of Taiwan cinema's Healthy Realism movement of the 1960s (initiated by veteran director Lee Hsing), and Hong Kong political comedy-thrillers of the 1980s-1990s.
However, the major flaw of this gimmick is that Jack Neo overplays the satire when he lambasts Malaysia and Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir (albeit with a mandatory happy ending which tries to patch up the damage caused). As a Malaysian, I find this treatment too heavy-handed, but I note that even my fellow Singaporean film critics agree with me. It seems that Neo is prepared to lose the Malaysian market, because I predict that Homerun will be banned there (as was the recent satire Zoolander).
Homerun is planned for release two days before Singapore's National Day, August 9, 2003. The climax of the film takes place on August 9, 1965, and the mother of the two shoeless children fortuitously delivers her third child on that very day. As stated earlier, the film focuses on the schoolboys' quarrels, and to underline the metaphor, Neo cuts to a dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over the water supply which also coincidentally starts on August 9. Unlike Hong Kong political comedies, where the filmmaker usually takes the side of the common citizen, Neo's film faithfully adheres to the public pronouncements made by the political leaders on both sides. However by accepting the Singapore Government's words at face value, and by adopting the official line, the film becomes facile political propaganda, rather than deeper human drama which inspired Neo's I Not Stupid?
Will Homerun make huge amounts of patriotic money? Probably. Can the film stand the test of time? I'm sure that this last consideration is not in Neo's filmmaking agenda!
2. Review by Soh Yun-Huei
Rating: ** (out of four stars)
It's not a stretch to say that Jack Neo is Singapore's most successful director. His output has been prolific, and a handful of his movies have become box office successes. Money No Enough and I Not Stupid were both cash cows, but both films had niggling bits that made them good but not great. In Neo's latest offering, Homerun, he manages to overcome some of the problems that have plagued his previous work, but the remaining issues loom even larger in Homerun, making the cinematic experience of watching Homerun far from pleasurable.
Ostensibly an adaptation of the acclaimed Iranian movie, Children of Heaven (directed by Majid Majidi in 1997), Homerun loosely retains the basic storyline, but makes a number of changes to the plot of the original film. Set in Singapore in 1965, Homerun tells the tale of Ah Kun (Shawn Lee), a young boy who accidentally loses his sister, Seow Fang's (newcomer Megan Zheng) school shoes. Their solution is to share Ah Kun's shoes, with Seow Fang wearing them to school in the morning, then running back home to pass the shoes to Ah Kun so that he could attend classes.
Added to the fray is a subplot about Ah Kun and his buddies' quarrels with kampong rich kid Ming Soon (Joshua Ang) and his posse, who turn from friend to foe, as the two groups duke it out over matters like well water, and trading homework for soccer boots. Just when Ah Kun has run out of ideas to replace his sister's shoes, the opportunity presents itself - if Ah Kun manages to get third position in the annual Inter-School Cross Country Run, he will win a pair of school shoes, putting an end to his woes of shoe-sharing.
It's been said that remaking a film is almost always a vanity project, and remaking an acclaimed film even more so. Jack Neo has gathered enough clout to attempt a project like this, but unfortunately he seems to have failed to understand what made the original movie a good one. Children of Heaven is a charming, innocent portrayal of life in abject poverty in Iran, and how a family manages to survive through such hardships. Superficially, both movies are still thematically similar, but Jack Neo tacks on a political subtext and absurd mawkishness, causing the film to be devoid of innocence and replaced with a sense of agenda and manipulation.
Jack Neo's recent films all have a political subtext, but none of the films have been as unsubtle as Homerun. Shifting his sights from the ruling party and the educational system, Jack Neo focuses on the Singapore-Malaysia water dispute, and there are scenes in the movie that are so transparently a riff on the terse back-and-forth between Singapore and Malaysia that they no longer feel satirical and become downright vicious. He even calls one of the kids that represent Singapore as Little Red Dot, and goes as far as to send up Dr. Mahathir's much-publicized shedding of tears and (later recanted) decision to step down at an United Malays National Organization (UMNO) rally. It is understandable that as a commercial film, Jack Neo has to cater to a broader scope of audiences, but his sledgehammer subtlety lacks the finesse of successful satire. Coming in the middle of real-life tensions between Singapore and Malaysia, one wonders if Homerun is a victim of really bad timing, or if Jack Neo would be considered a champion of Singapore's cause. It's completely understandable if Malaysia chooses to ban this film, because sometimes things can get a little too touchy for its own good.
Even if one considers such antics as socio-political commentary, Jack Neo once again commits the other crime of using his characters as a personal soapbox. Just like I Not Stupid, Jack makes use of his child actors to spout lines that will never come from normal children, making them seem far more profound than they should be. It fails to convince, and coupled with the ham handed manner Jack Neo tries to manipulate the audience's emotions makes the film very unconvincing. For example, in one scene one of the children is forced to run barefoot through a road strewn with broken glass bottles for no really good reason, and the whole sequence is accompanied by a score and song that simply tries too hard.
That's not to say that Homerun has no redeeming factors. From a technical aspect, the film is pretty well made and puts it on the upper echelon of local films, and is one of the most portable films that Jack Neo has ever produced. Previous Jack Neo films have suffered from an over-Singaporeaness, rendering the films near impossible to understand for audiences who are not locals. Homerun has by far a more generic setting, and the general lack of local colloquialisms and idiosyncrasies is likely to make Homerun an accessible film to international audiences. It also seems as though Jack Neo has been able to pull away from the long shadow of blatant product placements, a flaw that has always been visible in local productions. My personal opinion is that a moviegoer without knowledge of the political context of Homerun would actually find the film to be a more effective one, and that a person who has not seen the original Children of Heaven will rank Homerun higher than I have.
Final Word: A ridiculously overt political subtext and a lack of subtlety on the part of Jack Neo makes Homerun more in-your-face than it should be, and the forced parallelisms between the film and real life potentially make it a difficult movie for local viewers to sit through.