(Hokkien, Singlish and Mandarin dialogue)
Aboisterous, on-the-nose comedy about three cash-strapped Singaporeans living in government projects, “Money No Enough” is initially fresh and amusing but ultimately too one-note and local in its humor to travel far beyond East Asia. Low-budget pic, released May 7, has made history in the tiny island republic by taking S$ 5 million ($ 3 million) in its first two months, becoming the all-time top Chinese-lingo grosser (overtaking all of Jackie Chan’s oeuvre) and even beating out such Hollywood blockbusters as “Independence Day” and “Twister” on the B.O. charts.
The movie’s runaway biz has put real lead in the pencil of the nascent Singaporean industry, and follows the growing worldwide trend of truthful, locally themed comedies perking up moribund industries. With its cast of established TV stars, irreverent approach to life in the sanitized republic and recognizable setting among HDB (Housing Development Board) tenants and loan sharks, pic has hit a popular nerve in Singapore, drawing repeat business. Some 85% of its dialogue is in earthy Hokkien, the dominant Chinese dialect on the island.
Central trio are Chew Wah-keong (scripter Jack Neo), a married-with-kids 40 -year-old who’s permanently up to his ears in bills; Ong (Mark Lee), a longhaired doofus who renovates apartments; and pudgy, geeky-looking Hui (Henry Thia), a waiter at a sidewalk cafe. When Chew is suddenly passed over for promotion at the trading company where he’s worked all his life, he blows his top, calls his slimy boss “an old fag” and quits. Ong, meanwhile, has borrowed 40 grand from a loan shark and is likely to have his legs broken if he doesn’t repay in two weeks. Hui’s problems are more personal than pecuniary: how to pull women when you have zero career prospects and a face like a teapot.
Opening half-hour is both lively and funny, the repartee flowing as the characters and situations are set up. Playing by the leads — all regulars on Channel 8’s weekly “Comedy Night” — is unforced and nicely timed, and Neo’s fast-paced dialogue is given plenty of space to bloom by TV producer Tay Teck-lock, here making his feature bow.
Though the subtitles give only a hint of the script’s flavor, and many of the jokes turn on local obsessions, the rough humor and spirited perfs still translate for non-Singaporeans. Only when the plot develops into a series of increasingly outrageous money-making schemes do the pic’s limitations become apparent, and repetition sets in.
Neo, previously seen as the harassed newlywed in Eric Khoo’s “12 Storeys,” though best known locally for his “Comedy Night” drag act, gives himself a fairly low-key role as a middle manager who finds his lack of English and computing skills ill-equip him in the modern job market. Most of the performance color comes from Lee, excellent as the louche, risk-taking Ong, and from Thia as the goofy, wannabe Romeo. The gawky Patricia Mok, another “Comedy Night” regular , repeatedly pops up as an aggressive rebuffer of Hui’s approaches, to amusing effect.
Tech credits on the S$ 1 million production are unadorned but pro. The deliberate use of background noise to color the dialogue and the occasional employment of sophisticated camera moves hint at a greater intelligence behind the production than appears on the surface.
There is already talk of a follow-up, but following the pic’s unexpected success, the three leads, who were paid only a combined S$ 10,000 for their roles, publicly fell out with the producer.