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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   I Not Stupid  



 

I NOT STUPID

Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei

Chinese Title: Xiaohai bu ben
Director: Jack Neo
Writing Credits: Jack Neo
Cast: Jack Neo, Xiang Yun, Richard Low, Selena Tan, Huang Po Ju, Selena Tan, Shawn Lee
Language: Mandarin, Hokkien, English
Country: Singapore
Genre: Comedy
Year Released: 2002
Runtime: 105 min
Rating: **½ (out of four stars)

I Not Stupid is Jack Neo’s latest addition to the growing stable of local movies, and for anyone familiar to the local scene, it’s pretty justified to say that Jack Neo is ubiquitous in local movies. He had appeared in Twelve Storeys and One Leg Kicking, was the screenwriter for Money No Enough (a phenomenal success), wrote and acted in Liang Po Po: The Movie, wrote and directed and acted in That One No Enough… you get my point. Jack Neo plays all three roles (writing, directing, acting) again in I Not Stupid, ostensibly a film about three primary school children who are struggling in their studies, but also a very thinly veiled satire on Singapore politics. Whilst containing quite a few gags, and chock-full of social commentary, I Not Stupid isn’t a remarkable film, but it is a step in the right direction.

Kok Pin (Shawn Lee), Terry (Huang Po Ju), and Boon Hock (Joshua Ang) are primary school classmates in an EM3 class – the "worst" tier of the EM1 to EM3 system used in Singapore’s primary school education system. These EM3 students are deemed to be academically the poorest, and even the teachers have all but given up on them. Kok Pin has a talent for drawing, but not for Maths and Science; Terry is actually pretty okay with his studies, but his poor command of English is pulling his results down; Boon Hock has to help his mum at a noodle stall, and also to take care of his younger brother, thus leaving very little time for studies.

The tale is told through the eyes of Terry, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and is dreadfully spoilt. His parents run a Chinese barbecued pork business, his father (Richard Low) a loud-mouthed businessman who bows down to "ang mohs" (Caucasians); whilst his mother (Selena Tan), who is always dressed in all white (nudge nudge), is very controlling of Terry and his sister Selena (Cheryl Chan). Although Terry is obedient of his mother to a fault (wink wink), Selena is very rebellious, and tries to break free from her mother’s grasp (nudge nudge again). Kok Pin’s father (Jack Neo) is embroiled in a power struggle with a Caucasian in the advertising firm where he works, whilst his authoritarian mother (Xiang Yun) is struck with illness. Whilst the kids struggle with their schoolwork, the adults struggle with their careers and their parenting decisions. Things seem to be going downhill for almost everyone, and matters come to a head when something that Terry’s father does comes back to haunt him…

I Not Stupid isn’t exactly a complex tale, but the plot branches into so many different directions at once that no plot thread takes a central focus. Kudos to Jack Neo for trying at least to tie up almost all the loose ends in the final reel. Unfortunately, many a time it felt as though Jack Neo was channeling his own thoughts of the government through his characters, especially when the children in the movie start alluding to government policies and politics in general (I counted at least three occurrences). Nothing is sacred in I Not Stupid – everything, from the educational system, to the CPF scheme, to the New Singapore Shares, to the government’s pre-election tactics, to foreign workers in Singapore, to the colonial mentality of some Singaporeans… Whilst some of these digs are pretty subtle, a large majority is blatant and in-your-face – Selena Tan’s character is particularly so. What could possibly be most shocking is that the Singapore censors actually allowed this film through in the first place. Although such subject matter makes the film immediately accessible to Singaporeans, I Not Stupid falls into the same "trap" as those that came before it – that it is so steeped in local in-jokes that it has no portability across national boundaries.

Another negative aspect (but, as I’ve mentioned before when I watched One Leg Kicking, probably unavoidable) of I Not Stupid is the product placements in the film. It is perfectly all right to have subtle product placements in a movie (who doesn’t need the cash?), but to have characters blurt out the product names and have shots composed of nothing but a slow, loving pan of the products is another matter altogether. At the end of I Not Stupid, it is guaranteed that any audience member can tell you who the sponsors are – Bee Cheng Hiang barbecued pork, Pink Dolphin Calcium Drink, and Sunshine Bread. This is product placement done to an illogical extreme, and can be pretty irksome. Unfortunately, the movie industry in Singapore still needs injections of cash from these vendors, so there’s nothing much anyone can do about it.

Most of the actors in I Not Stupid are veterans in acting, and although none of them offer spectacular performances, there is nothing much to nitpick at. It’s the three main child actors that surprise – despite their inexperience, their performances are suitably realistic (they are, after all, probably playing themselves). The film offers its fair share of funny moments – take, for example, the incredibly bad barbecued pork advertising campaign created by a Caucasian – but is at times hampered by overt melodrama. The other barbecued pork campaign in the movie is a gem, however, and I can actually envision the campaign working in real life. I Not Stupid is, as its title suggests, not a stupid movie, and it will hopefully bring the local movie industry back on track following years of disappointing releases.

Final Word: (This would be longer than usual.) I am, for once, pretty conflicted about the rating I gave to this movie. Much as I would like to give it a higher score, I feel that to truly judge the merit of a local movie is to compare it to international releases. Using this as a basis of comparison, 2.5 stars is the highest rating I can give to I Not Stupid. It may seem a bit unfair, as after all, it is a movie made locally, in an industry still in its infant stages; but if everyone keeps adopting this mentality, then local movies will forever be constrained to a local audience. It’s like the Miss Singapore-Universe pageant – the winner in the local contest usually pales in comparison when brought over to the international Miss Universe pageant. However, if we keep striving to attain international levels, then one day, we could really get a local movie that finds international acclaim, and maybe find our Miss Universe representative in the finalists – even when the event is not hosted in Singapore.