Perfect Rivals: Not At All Perfect

You know the whole star-crossed lover deal. Boy and girl from rival families fall in love with each other and eventually end up being torn apart, the eventual separation their inevitable moira. When you transpose this premise to a romantic comedy, of course, the star-crossed lovers are not so tragically fated after all; they always magically end up together. This premise is not at all uncommon, and Han Yew Kwang's latest film Perfect Rivals borrows that concept for the basis of its narrative conflicts.

Touted as his first foray into commercial cinema(though 18 Grams Of Love and From Hainan Meets Teochew were also pretty commercial films in my opinion, perhaps only sufferring from limited screening), Perfect Rivals revolves around two rivalling families in the bak kwa business, one headed by Zeng Mei Mei (Irene Ang) and the other by Chen Hao (Ha Yu). The two have some history to them, being lovers in their youth as well as sharing the same mentor. Mei Mei's business is burgeoning, however, and her life happens to look glitzy at first glance: she has a modern looking shop, a beautiful home and two very beautiful daughters. Chen Hao is portrayed as a man down on his luck. Bitter and angry about his business' ailing sales, his only (self) consolation comes from the pride derived from his better tasting bak kwa. He has two children whom he sees as a disgrace to him: an autistic child who constantly imagines himself as superman (Stanlyn Hsu) and a drunkard good-for-nothing son (Josh Lai).

With a bak kwa tournament looming ahead, Mei Mei, worried that Chen Hao may claim the crown of King of Bak Kwa with his secret recipe, decides to send her slightly boyish looking young daughter Yuan Yuan (Mindee Ong) to spy on him, under the guise of working for him. Of course, that is where things start to get messy, with both Mei Mei's daughters very fortuitously - and somewhat bizarrely - falling in love with Chen Hao's two sons. The ending will come as a surprise to none.

Han's quirky visual flair shines through in one of the early scenes, where the members of the two rival families were introduced in brilliant fashion, as the two families were trying to outdo one another with their different business tactics. A favourite filmic device of his is going balls out wacky with the surreal scenes, and clear examples would be the aforementioned 18 Grams of Love and From Hainan Meets Teochew. In this film, the flashback scenes of Mei Mei and Chen Hao provide the outlet for Han to put his stamp onto the otherwise insipid and lacklustre A.I. Pictures outing.

The film struggles to deliver the laughs. One may criticize many local comedies (e.g. those directed by Jack Neo) for never evolving, often sticking to the same slapstick schtick and familiar gags to up the humour quotient, but at least most of the time those films have an anarchic energy throughout their course that gives a constant sense of fun and adventure. Perfect Rivals suffers from very inconsistent pacing; some scenes are over-the-top fun, like the massage scene with both Mei Mei and Chen Hao trying to spite each other, but many others feel flat. Fortunately, many otherwise lacklustre scenes are buoyed by the spirited performance of Mindee Ong, who plays Yuan Yuan with much verve, and her scenes are some of the funniest in the film. Ha Yu, being the veteran that he is, turns up a solid performance too, but the same can't be said of the two playing his children. Stanlyn Hsu and Josh Lai turned in absolutely dull, lifeless, and at parts even annoying performances that are occasionally cringe worthy. The usually ebullient Irene Ang is muted down somewhat for this role, and her performance appears contrived at times, perhaps due to her lack of comfort with the mother tongue.

More worrying though, is the revelation that both Mei Mei's daughters may have been fathered by Chen Hao. This development may at first seem to suggest both of them has a deeper bond than we had expected, but it also throws an otherwise innocent family film into incestuous territory. That the children get coupled along the way so coincidentally is already bizarre in itself; but when the curveball is dropped along the way that the children of Mei Mei and Chen Hao may in fact be siblings, there is a disturbing incestuous tone underscoring the remainder of the film. The film does not try to sort out details of the relationship between the couples; it is solely focused on the relationship between Mei Mei and Chen hao, and of course the film ends on a good note when both of them get back together. This plot development (Yuan Yuan realizing she may be Chen Hao's daughter) is probably meant as a mechanism for Mei Mei's children to understand her past history with Chen Hao and also to push her to reconciliation with him, but it reduces the supporting characters to mere peripherals as it essentially trivializes their relationships, since their blood relations will no longer render them romantic lovers.

Entertained by the film, I sure was, but to say that Perfect Rivals is less than perfect would be an understatement.

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