Friday, July 01, 2011

NYAFF ’11: Sell Out

Finally a film has the effrontery to parody the glacially paced self-consciously arty art cinema represented by the likes of Malaysia’s Woo Ming-jin and Thailand’s Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul. It then turns into a musical. Inventive beyond mere category, Sell Out (trailer here) Yeo Joon-han’s English language Malaysian musical social satire broadside, screens tonight during the gleefully eclectic 2011 New York Asian Film Festival.

The ambitious Rafflesia Pong is stuck in FONY TV’s career gulag, interviewing pretentious filmmakers, like “Yeo Joon Han,” the director of film festival winners nobody watches. However, when she accidentally films the dying words of her ex-fiancée poet, she strikes reality TV gold. Suddenly, she has a shot at primetime glory as the host of Final Say, capturing dying Malaysians’ last words of wisdom. The only trick is finding interview subject to cooperative enough to die on-camera.

The talented Eric Tan works for FONY’s consumer electronics division. Unfortunately, he is acutely ethical, which annoys his senior management to no end. They even take him to a dodgy psychic to exorcize his inner dreamer. It sort of works. The spiritualist expels the dreamer alright, but he refuses to disappear, leaving the practical and the principled Tans to awkwardly coexist. Of course, Tan the dreamer still carries a torch for Pong. He even has the songs to prove it.

From art-house filmmakers to the British influenced English speaking (“Manglish”) business sector, Sell Out takes shots at some pretty fat targets. Frankly, the anti-corporate material is fairly standard stuff, albeit with a clever linguistic twist. However, the long opening interview sequence with Yeo Joon Han (certainly self-referential, but the director does not appear as himself) is a truly subversive riot. That alone is worth the price of admission. Yet, Yeo constantly deconstructs the movie musical form in clever ways. Indeed, Sell Out must have broken new ground by inviting the audience to perform the big dramatic showstopper karaoke-style.

Amidst the post-modern lunacy, Jerrica Lai’s Pong is an equally unlikely musical heroine, whose own ethical flexibility keeps viewing expectations off balance. Still, the élan she brings to the proceedings keeps the audience thoroughly invested. As Tan, Peter Davis is an earnestly engaging everyman. In a notable supporting turn, the perfectly cast Hannah Patricia Lo Wun Yee’s catty flare steals all her scenes as Pong’s Eurasian nemesis Hannah Edwards Leong. She is also rather attractive, not that such matters are noticed or remarked upon at NYAFF.

Though it arguably borrows Paddy Chayefsky’s themes from Network, Sell Out is just chocked full of original bits. Perhaps the film’s biggest shocker though is the music penned by Yeo. His songs do not entirely blow. In fact, they are rather catchy. Had it been played straight right down the middle, Sell Out probably would have been at least watchable as a movie musical. Instead, Yeo amped up the energy level and lathered his script with ironic humor. The result is a gas, despite the corporate clichés. Highly recommended, Sell Out screens tonight (7/1) and the Fourth of July at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.