Unlucky Plaza starts by introducing three characters who reside in Singapore. Onassis (Epy Quizon) is the owner of a Filipino restaurant struggling due to a food poisoning scandal. Michelle (Judee Tan) is a drama teacher carrying out an affair with her pastor/realtor Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki). Her husband Sky (Adrian Pang) is a former actor turned wealth guru now hounded by a Chinese gangster for his gambling debts. The film spends most of its runtime exploring the lives of these characters before getting to the meat of the matter. Michelle ends up running into Onassis, and ends up scamming him out of his life savings. Onassis, in desperation, ends up taking Michelle, Sky and a few other people hostage in their home.
The film is mainly interesting for its depiction of Singaporean society. It peels away the surface layer of seductive peace and prosperity and unveils a much more compelling picture of the society. In its three characters, it explores a society that puts on a good face while tamping down all the terrible things that lurk just beneath, like racism, marital dissatisfaction, and outright greed. The story kind of peters out in the back end, a narrative gimmick causing it to lose all tension. But for a good long while, Unlucky Plaza is a really entertaining snapshot of what Singapore is underneath its placid image.
The gimmick in question is a framing device. Before it actually gets to the story, the film introduces these characters in the context of a TV interview show, talking about surviving the hostage situation. There is another layer of metanarrative to be revealed later on, but it isn’t really worth taking this structural gambit. It extends the film’s runtime, breaks up the flow of the story, and really robs the climax of any real tension. We know these characters survive, after all, and so the attempt to wring suspense out of a standoff falls decidedly flat.
But prior to all that, the film is charming in its bluntness. There seems to be genuine anger behind the camera, and it doesn’t hold anything back. It is fearless in its depiction of the foibles of Singaporean society, painting its people as venal and selfish and more than a little racist. None of these characters emerge as heroes. They are all deeply flawed people who do terrible things to survive this cutthroat society. And all of them are surprised when they encounter things that are supposed to be outside of the realm of experience of someone living in this shining gem of a city.
And the film is funny. Its fearlessness gives the humor an acidic edge. Apart of the unnecessarily complicated structure, the film makes pretty good choices. A lot of these scenes are really fluid, the camera floating through spaces, capturing the action in smooth, lengthy takes. The acting is pretty good as well. Epy Quizon gets the meatiest part, and he does not a waste a second of it. As Onassis, he is a overly prideful, even in the morass of his desperation. He is an underdog, but he is not entirely worthy of salvation, either. Adrian Pang and Judee Tan play out very different aspects of a marriage that isn’t working, the character too self-obsessed to consider what’s really going on.
The most interesting bits of Unlucky Plaza have little to do with the hostage situation around which the story is built. There just isn’t much more to learn once the film gets to those sequences, the plot basically going on autopilot towards a conclusion that’s already been revealed. But the film makes getting to that place a real joy. This is a film with a really strong viewpoint, and it’s worth seeing just for that. It doesn’t quite hold together in the end, but the fearlessness of it all is pretty compelling stuff.