In “Homerun,” popular Singaporean actor-director Jack Neo turns away from his usual acidly comic view of contempo life with a lightly charming period movie centered on a poor young kid struggling to get his young sis a new pair of white canvas shoes. A fairly close remake of Iranian Majid Majidi’s “Children of Heaven” (1997), though lacking that director’s effortless touch at drawing big lessons from small incidents, pic hit a home run at local wickets late last summer, grossing S$2.4 million ($1.5 million). Offshore, though, this falls mainly into the ballpark of Asian-centered events and kidfests.
Set in 1965, on the cusp of Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, story centers on Kun (Shawn Lee), who accidentally loses the tattered shoes of his sister, Seow-fong (Megan Zheng), while parlaying some free rice for his penniless parents (Huang Wen-yong, Xiang Yun). Pic is basically a succession of lightly comic incidents in which he tries to replace the shoes and spare his sister’s blushes at school, where all the other kids are well shod.
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Much of the action is centered on rivalry between Kun’s soccer team of ragamuffins and the well-equipped one of the older Beng-soon (Joshua Ang), whose dad runs a shoe shop. Climax is a cross-country race in which a new pair of shoes are the second and third prizes.
Where Majidi’s film was set in the city, Neo’s is set around a kampung (village), a way of life that’s long-gone in the super-modern island republic. Some of the local flavor and references — such as an oblique one to the Malaysia-Singapore water feud — will be lost on foreign auds. There’s also none of the sharp, witty, dialect-flavored dialogue that usually marks Neo’s scripts (“Money No Enough,” “I Not Stupid”), even though the cast is made up of Neo regulars. Rather unrealistically, all dialogue is in Mandarin, which increases its fairytale feel but distances it from the period it tries to evoke.
Main pleasures are the performances of the kids, which range from natural (Lee) through cute as a button (10-year-old Zheng, who won Best Newcomer at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards) to hilariously feisty (Xiao Li-yuan, Ashley Leong). These perfs mitigate much of the cliched sweetness elsewhere in the script. Only at the very end does Neo insert a jab at present-day Singapore (“We could see what was wrong when we had no shoes; now we have them, can we still see?”).
Tech credits, with processing done in Thailand, are the smoothest in Neo’s career to date. Though largely shot in Malaysia, pic was, ironically, banned there for its supposed digs. Chinese title means “Run, Kid!”