Saturday, November 12, 2011

Smith and Jones Run Amok

Cinq Gars Pour Singapour, France, directed by Bernard Toublanc-Michel (1967)

This piece was commissioned for the National Museum of Singapore's Film Quarterly, a new publication that will complement the programming of the Cinematheque. Cinq gars, sadly is not showing at the Museum any time soon, but you can view a watchable dub of it on YouTube, see above.

Once upon a time, if you were making a film and wanted to conjure up Singapore, you only needed the residents of your local Chinatown, a job-lot of wooden planks, bits and pieces from the fancy-dress shop and a parrot. But post-war, or specifically post-Independence Singapore, was a different entity. It demanded to be visited rather than imagined; it had textures and atmospheres that no studio carpenter could recreate. With affordable air tickets film-makers could be tourists, breaking into far-flung tropical countries with suitcases full of cash, phone numbers of fixers, lightweight cameras and the gift of the gab. No wonder so many foreign-made films from the 1960s shot in Singapore concern espionage and secret missions. Travelling light but with an agenda was glamorous – they felt like spies, they were spies, capturing images like secrets. Cinq gars pour Singapour (neatly translated, with rhyme intact, to Five Ashore In Singapore) is already a double-agent, a French film pretending to be American. The motley crew of actors belong to various and mixed nationalities, and I haven’t even mentioned the Swedish-French blonde bombshell and the Italian heavy who plays a Chinese bad guy. Somehow the hybridity of these sorts of bizarre Euro co-productions filters all the way through the credits.

Filmed (I assume) in 1966 and directed by Bernard Toublanc-Michel, previously assistant to nouvelle vague luminaries Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda, the film’s story is adapted from a Jean Bruce paperback published in 1959. Bruce was the creator of the ‘French James Bond’, OSS 117, to whom there’s a none-too-subtle nod during the opening credits, when the film’s protagonist, the blandly titled and performed Art Smith (played by Sean Flynn, more later) is picked up at Payar Lebar Airport by a car parked in lot number 117.

Cinq gars enjoys the spectacle of arriving in Singapore so much that Art Smith enters twice. Once by plane, complete with bureaucratic close-ups of entry visas, when he’s told by a knowing local girl that “we have Smiths and Browns arriving everyday”, and later by boat after a rendezvous with the other four titular Marines, dropping anchor at Collyer Quay. This latter sequence, in terms of its historical documentation of Singapore, is the film’s highlight. The now-demolished Quay itself teems with people, and our five guys strut their stuff through the beautiful entrance hall while the film’s title song promises “Somewhere in Singapore… we’ll find pretty girls.” The camerawork is loose, handheld and buzzed on the energy of a new place and experience. They hit the street, jostled by trishaw hustlers, and jaywalk over to the General Post Office (now The Fullerton Hotel, a few feet from where Saint Jack told the CIA to “fuck it” a decade later), diving into a labyrinth of street stalls, shops, heat and food. The cameraman captures all this lurking behind pillars, shooting across roads, leaning out of the windows of higher buildings. It’s guerrilla and gorilla film-making, as the actors-playing-Marines leer at local girls, marvel dumbly at tat in the shops and gape incredulously at a noodle-consuming pedestrian.

The film was shot entirely on location, and there’s a tension between the roving eye of Jean Charvein, the cinematographer, regarding Singapore as a landscape to be absorbed and recorded in all its myriad wonders, and the two-fisted narrative, which casts various sites around the island as an arbitrary series of obstacles and props to be smashed over and destroyed.

The plot is simple and goofy. Seventeen Marines on shore leave in Singapore have gone missing in a month. Art Smith’s sent to solve the mystery, with four tough guy Marines led by Kevin (Marc Michel slumming it after being Jacques Demy’s leading man and the enigmatic prisoner in Jacques Becker’s Le Trou), who tells Smith that the missing men “dissolve in the midst of revelry” after getting drunk and meeting a girl “or something that approximately resembles one”. Singapore, a zone of escape and erotic possibility, has become a new, covert battlefield.

So, our five heroes, including English boxer Terry Downes (with incomprehensible cockney drawl) and Denis Berry, the French-born son of blacklisted American director John Berry, hit town, pretending to be regular Marines. They’re as charmless and wooden as porn actors. Dialogue is painfully stilted and highly functional (lots of numbers, orders and repetition). In the lead, Sean Flynn, seems coolly disinterested in being charismatic, acting to cash in on his father’s name (his first lead role was as Son of Captain Blood). Cinq gars was his last film and it’s as if he quit before the shoot started. Just four years later he would disappear completely, into the badlands of Cambodia as a photo-journalist, never to be seen again.

Before long the lads are creating havoc around Chinatown. They start a trishaw race, drunkenly goading the poor drivers. During this raucous ‘comedy’ there’s a blinking cutaway to a handle-bar, and for a split-second we see a metal-framed family photograph belonging to a driver. A sliver of documented humanity caught on the fly. They hide from police in a cinema that has a ‘Majulah Singapura’ banner hanging above the box office, a reminder of the country’s freshly independent status (that and the predominance of Malay spoken by both police and villains). On screen there’s a newsreel about the Vietnam war; Toublan-Michel’s attempt, albeit briefly, to problematise the military fun and games. Indeed, the next section of the film, where the Marines hit a sleazy dive (‘The Paradise Limited’) and bully a luckless mama-san, rejecting the “ready for Boogie street” hostesses as too ugly, and start a demented fight with the girls (fists versus stilettos), carries an authentic whiff of the nihilism, racism, violence and misogyny of an American soldier letting off steam in Asia. As Monika, the film’s archetypal Caucasian woman in a cheongsam, comments in a show-stopping monologue, these men aren’t interested in the beauty of women, only “the smell of death”.

The team are desperately trying to get kidnapped, and finally they get their wish, intoxicated by loudly bubbling champagne and “pretty girls” (one of whom, we’re told, had danced with William Holden) in a ‘Private Club’ (a hotel restaurant) belonging to a fez-wearing smoothie improbably named Ten-Sin (all the ‘Chinese’ characters have these kinds of names). Events escalate and gradually, through a series of interminable fist fights, gun fights, explosions, torture sequences and chases, we travel vicariously around Singapore in ’66, wishing we were in the company of less brutal, more appreciative tourists.

They fight on a beach on the East Coast at dawn; clean up in a suite at the now-demolished Cathay Hotel (where the windows are cleaned by Samsui women), track down information at Pulau Brani, the kampong on water, which features some stunning footage before a house is blown up; they gatecrash the mama-san’s funeral in Chinatown, harassing an elderly Chinese woman who actually gets some lines; they run around the lushly green and jungly Keppel Golf Course, and finally get to a vast mansion in Telok Blangah, the villain’s lair.

Ta-Chouen (played by Italian b-movie veteran, Andrea Aurelia) is a tubby Fu-Manchu first seen draped on a circular bed, smoking opium and surrounded by half-naked girls, leading our amoral heroes to declare him “a gentleman of good taste”. One of the harem is the aforementioned Monika (the extraordinarily intense Marika Green, from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and aunt of Eva Green), who shows up teasingly throughout the film. When Art Smith confronts her on the bed, silently angry at her sexual betrayal (sleeping with the enemy and a Chinese), it’s the film’s only dramatic moment, cutting back and forth between their impassive, beautiful faces. The soldiers torture Ta-Chouen in his own chamber (with electrodes to his head and punches to the face), until they find out about a new rendezvous on the beach (rustic Sentosa this time). In a pleasantly realistic detail, Ta-Chouen smuggles comatose Marines out of Singapore in the back of a ‘Cold Storage’ truck belonging to Kun & Company (2 Kuching Road, Singapore 4). Finally Art Smith and a buddy discover the missing Marines’ fate, to be kept on a tanker out to sea in the ship’s deep freezer. The soldiers are literally kept on ice, part of some diabolical experiment of Ta-Chouen’s. After all the action and forward momentum of the film, it’s appropriate that the heroes should spend the last ten minutes stuck in a dark room slowly freezing to death. The meat-headed become meat. Or they would have done if they weren’t rescued. By the preposterous closing, Art Smith and Monika are in loving embrace and all the soldiers are apparently defrosted.

The problem with Cinq gars is not it’s inherently colonial view of Singapore as an exotic playground for male adventure, which could so easily have been simulated in a studio backlot, but rather that at times the Singapore in the film is proved to be so tantalisingly real. It breathes, and the camera is present to capture the moments, the details and the expressions, but then we return to these dead-faced young men and their search for more dead-faced young men. We are shown but kept distant from the life of the city in 1966, a vanished place and a people we want to properly encounter, not just the Smiths and Jones who still arrive every day.

Many thanks to Vinita Ramani for getting me to write this.