“You looking at me? Are you looking at me?”
Sure its one of the most famous lines in film. Some of you might even recognize it despite never having seen the film. Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER made international names out of its director and its star Robert DeNiro, whose portrayal of maniac Travis Bickle is one of cinema’s most defining characters. Singaporean director Djinn is about to unleash an Asian cab driver that is swimming dangerously close to Travis Bickle waters in the urban thriller PERTH.
Kay Tong Lim is Harry Lee, a simple man with a big dream. Harry passes the time until his retirement picturing the sun kissed shore of Perth, Australia. But, when the funds needed to ensure his paradise come up short, Lee and his best friend Selvam (A. Panneeirchelvam) take on a job ferrying prostitutes to and from their Johns. The deeper and deeper Harry steeps himself in the seedy underbelly of Singapore, the further from his dream he ultimately falls—until madness begins to tear his reality apart.
Critics are calling Djinn’s desolate vision an “Asian TAXI DRIVER” and the comparisons are fair enough. It seems exceptionally clear in one scene that Djinn is paying homage to the film. But to side track the PERTH with a comparison like that sets expectations that are nearly insurmountable. And perhaps it is in those expectations that the film ultimately fails.
Where it succeeds is in the casting of Kay Tong Lim as Harry. His performance (mostly spoken in broken English) is so organic that it’s mesmerizing. Every second of every frame the man could turn on a dime and go from jovial cabbie to crazed sociopath is palpable. I sat transfixed by his sheer intensity waiting with bated breath for him to completely lose it. And rest assured that when he does, no one and nothing can prepare you for the madness that is unleashed—Think the flash sequences cut throughout Oliver Stone’s NATURAL BORN KILLERS.
What is problematic for audiences is two-fold. To begin with the movie is almost all build up. So if you’re not a foreign film aficionado this is probably not the kind of eye candy you’ll want to be sitting through—it’s a lot of talk. The second issue is directly related to the talk. As the film is roughly 75% in English, two major problems present themselves. If you watch the film with the subtitles on, it is slightly distracting since the characters are speaking English. So, to remedy that irritation, you might want to turn them off. New problem. You’re gonna need ‘em back on once you figure out that all that dialogue that made perfect sense when the subtitles were on, makes a very muddled mess of syllables without the aid of them. Confused? Trust me when I say, this film is gonna require a little commitment on your part.
Overall PERTH is a gritty neo noir that harkens back to the great American classics of the 1970’s. But living in the shadow of MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER is a hard rock to push past and that aspect alone contributes a fair share of the problems that PERTH encounters. Still, for a performance that shouldn’t be missed, Kay Tong Lim delivers every frame he’s on film, and that alone makes the film worth watching.