Normally, devoting eighty minutes of a two-hour running time to setting up a straightforward, ripped-from-tabloids hostage drama might suggest creative indecision. Thankfully, Singaporean writer-director Ken Kwek defies expectations with the pulpy thriller Unlucky Plaza, his feature debut. Kwek exhaustively develops an engaging collection of supporting characters before focusing on his main story: the kidnapping of a roomful of Singaporeans by a Filipino transplant armed only with a toy gun and a gigundo meat cleaver.
Onassis Hernandez (Epy Quizon), a Chinese-hating Filipino immigrant with more bills than business sense, is introduced as the main protagonist during the opening scene, in which he breaks the fourth wall and cautions YouTube viewers/us that he is a reluctant hostage-taker and that his victims are the real “bad guys.”
For the next hour and change, Kwek uses convoluted flashbacks to show why Onassis kidnapped a pack of ignoble abductees, including — but not limited to! — Michelle (Judee Tan), an unhappily married ex-teacher; Terence (Adrian Pang), her heavily-in-debt motivational-speaker husband; and Pastor Wen (Shane Mardjuki), Michelle’s reluctant lover.
Kwek’s refreshing focus on his terrorized protagonists’ pre-abduction lives keeps Unlucky Plaza afloat once it invests in generic ticking-clock thrills. American audiences may not fully understand the poorly developed political subtext that pits Chinese and Filipino transplants against native Singaporeans. But supporting characters’ actions otherwise make more sense once shit careens into the proverbial fan, as when Wen regretfully reassures a distracted but volcanically pissy Terence that Michelle doesn’t want a relationship with him. Quizon may carry the plot further than anyone else, but he’s not the only one who brings Unlucky Plaza to its unconvincingly explosive conclusion.
Directed by Ken Kwek
Opens January 8, Cinema Village