Reviewed by Low Bee Hong and Foong Ngai Hoe
Chinese Title: Bailiu Libai
Director: Ko Lam Po
Cast: Law Kar-Ying
Languages: English, Hokkien, Mandarin
Year Released: 1999
Rating: ½ star (out of four stars)
Overseas Movies manager Zhang Zun Nan told Lian He Zao Bao in an interview that Lucky Number would be a film for the masses. Having watched it, I can only say that in terms of plot, setting and tone, this is a film that caters more to the man on the street. Singlish, Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, coffee shops, multi-cultural communities -- they're something we're familiar with. You can tell the ending even before it's over.
The story's about Jonathan, who's been working for years at a coffee shop. Around him, people are falling victim to the economic downturn, including regular customer and Jonathan's good friend, Li Ming Lai, whose company had just closed. Soon, even Jonathan's affected when his petty boss falls for the charms of a young 'dragon lady' (girl from mainland China) Augustine. Thinking that she be a helper in the day, and his mistress in the evening, Jonathan's boss fires him and hires Augustine instead.
Jobless and without any marketable skills, Jonathan and Ming Lai find it tough riding the economic storm. They try to get by first by selling Viagra, and then serve as lookouts and runners for illegal betting rings, but do miserably every time. Finally, both end up in court for selling pirated VCDs, where they meet their defense lawyer Man. To pay their $40,000 fine, Jonathan spends his last $100 at the lottery. He however gets the number recommended by Hong Kong star Luo Jia Yin all wrong, but manages to strike it big. Eventually Jonathan buys up his former boss' coffee shop, becoming its proprietor. The end.
In any case, Lucky Number follows the footsteps of Money No Enough, without providing anything new. While lacking creativity, its a surprisingly sincere production, with the actors and actresses putting their best foot forward, so to speak. Television Corporation of Singapore artiste Lin Yi Sheng managed to grasp Ming Lai's character very well, while Wu Jian Hua, who plays Jonathan, has a comedic face just right for the role of a cowardly coffee shop attendant.
'Dragon lady' Zhang Yan Bin gives her voluptuous best, but appears to have overdone it a bit. Li Shu Fang, who plays the karaoke hostess, put up a brave (and wild) performance worthy of praise; Yao Ying Ying was competent as the female lawyer. And of course, Hong Kong star Luo Jia Ying's acting (playing herself) was commanding in her own 'Hong Kong' way.
The pity, therefore, is that even good acting cannot salvage a bad script. The coincidences in the plot are just too many to be believable. For instance, after Jonathan loses his job, it's failure after failure for our protagonist, and then suddenly, once his luck turns round, it's vice versa. One can't help but feel that efforts to inject a sense of reality into the script has somehow backfired because of this.
Word-play is also popular in local Chinese productions, and Lucky Number's no exception. For example, lou pou bang in Cantonese means 'no problem'; zuo liao beng (Hokkien) is 'Jonathan'; and Indian hawker Wegum Sami becomes wei ge san li (3 Viagra pills) in Mandarin. All these might make the film more close to home, but they also make Lucky Number less accessible to an overseas market.
Director Gao Lin Bao has sought to derive humour by employing lots of dialect in the dialogue, caricaturising the man on the street, and exaggerating their lives. HDB flats, coffee shops, long queues at TOTO betting outlets, and Singapore's unique rojak of languages -- everyone here knows them. 'Dragon ladies' as greedy vixens from China (I wonder how Chinese expatriates here will react to this stereotype); pirated VCDs and software; economic recession; unemployment; retrenchment -- these are things we often read in the papers. With such common subjects, a mediocre script and direction, there's nothing really unique about Lucky Number. And given the film's over-reliance on word-play to induce laughter, don't expect the film to break new ground.
It seems that only Eric Khoo's Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys have seriously tackled the Singaporean lifestyle on film. And maybe because of this, some audiences have found Khoo's films a bit too highbrow for their liking.
But when you consider how far films like Lucky Number, which limit themselves to recycling localized stories and themes, can go in an international market, it's no longer a laughing matter.