Man, that Mako Iwamatsu (Memoirs of a Geisha)! You would think that, as a veteran thespian, he would do his research before taking up a role of Tan in writer/director Graham Streeter’s feature film debut Cages. We mean, really–where are the traits of a true Singaporean ah pek, like the curmudgeon cursing or the occasional loud spitting? Needless to say, it isn’t the actors’ portrayals or even the story that makes Cages; it’s the impressive vision of Singapore.
Ali (Tan Kheng Hua, TV’s Phua Chu Kang), along with her seven-year-old son Jonah (pianist Dickson Tan in his film debut), has nowhere to go after her last boyfriend Ethan (Bobby Tonelli, No Tomorrow) kicks her out. As a last resort, she finds shelter in the bird shop of the last person she ever wanted to see again–her long-lost father Tan (Iwamatsu).
Most of the cast turn in by-the-numbers performances, with Tan Kheng Hua and Dickson Tan being the only ones who really stand out. Even Iwamatsu fails to impress, despite a resume that includes films like Seven Years in Tibet. The overly-sappy story doesn’t help either. It isn’t anything terribly original and seems to lack a general sense of direction. At the end of it all, the resolution and supposed “big revelation” don’t evoke any kind of emotional response and just seem forced.
What really saves the film is Streeter and cinematographer Mark Lapwood’s (The Reunion) impressive visual style. Blending a kampong look with modern Singapore, the filmmakers come up with their own personal vision that accentuates the country’s reputation as a cultural melting pot. The brilliant use of colors and simple, but interesting, camera angles are, at times, breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
We’re not writing Streeter off just yet; as a director, he shows amazing promise even now at the start of his cinematic career and we’d certainly love to see more of his work in the future. We just hope that in the future it will be a more original, less weepy story next time.
You’ll dig Cages, if you like: Visually engaging films like those from Japanese director Takeshi Miike or anything that requires lots and lots of hankies.