The Penang house of the favoured seventh wife of Cheong Fatt Tze, a successful minister in the 1890s,is the setting for a wake and a clever murder mystery in actor-director Glen Goei’s latest production. While the indigo manor is named after the original owner, Goei’s movie, The Blue Mansion, refers to an alternative title for the abode.
Set possibly in the 1960s, the film opens with preparations for the funeral of patriarch Wee Bak Chuan (Patrick Teoh), who built a pineapple empire. The domineering tycoon returns as a ghost and to his horror, witnesses an event meant to mourn his passing degenerating into a party. Oblivious to the fact that he’s moved on to the nether world, the businessman wants to voice his two cents’ worth about everything. The result is a continuous flow of dialogue and the incessant opinions or commands from the dead but overbearing magnate that no one hears but the audience.
Bak Chuan’s spirit finally meets his physical body when he looks into the coffin, and he realises why his family doesn’t respond to his rattling. This marks the start of his journey to discover the cause of his death, and his stumbling upon many secrets about his daughter and 2 sons that he never knew in the 30-odd years as their father.
On the surface, you think you recognise the stereotypes of a rich business family. There’s the reluctant heir, the ambitious second son and the spinster daughter. And these characteristics are in full evidence in the eldest, Teck Liang (Lim Kay Siu), whom Bak Chuan is adamant about handing the family empire to, foul-mouthed Teck Meng (Adrian Pang), who has issues being passed over for CEO and marital problems with Veronica (Tan Kheng Hua), as well as Pei Shan (Neo Swee Lin), a staunch Christian, who is unmarried because her family objects to her Indian boyfriend, Raj (Himanshu Bhatt).
But this wouldn’t be the story that took Goei and his writer Ken Kwek about 3 years to write and more than a decade to produce.
The complexity slowly reveals itself, as secrets of the the siblings come to the fore.
Propelling the story forward is a mysterious phone call that claims that Bak Chuan was murdered, instead of having died from a heart attack that doctors established as the cause of death. 2 police investigators, Inspector Suresh Maniam (Huzir Sulaiman) and his assistant Tan Kok Leong (Steve Yap) come knocking on the doors of the Wee family.
In addition to the intriguing mystery and well developed characters, and the solid acting that we’ve come to expect of the finest lights in Singapore stage community as well as their counterparts across the Causeway, the movie can also be counted on to provide some good chuckles. And unlike some local comedies that have relied heavily on Singlish [an English-based creole unique to Singapore] to milk the laughs, The Blue Mansion gives us cleverly crafted humour that is delivered in grammatically correct English, that is not stilted or with put-on accents, and relatable to a local audience. Anyone who has been to a funeral here knows how differing religious beliefs can become a sore point. So, it’s not surprising to see the compromise that results in a multi-religious memorial service. This is when you’ll see professional Chinese mourners place 4D bets while grieving, and someone gets to put on her make-up as she sings a hymn.
Scenes like these convey the comedic element and show the director’s attention to detail. The outcome is the momentary shift of the limelight to the supporting roles, which provides a break from the emotional roller coaster rides of the main cast. Two that stand out are director Glen Goei’s cameo appearance as William Han, an old friend of Liang and whom Bak Chuan labels as the “fruit cake”. The other that will surely crack you up is the funeral manager, played by Singapore’s favourite stand-up comedian Ah Beng [Hokkien term for a lout] Sebastian Tan, with his fluent Singlish and Hokkien as he negotiates with Bak Chuan’s wife, Siok Lin (Louisa Chong) over the size of the paper house and car to be burnt as offerings to her beloved husband.
Enhancing the melodramatic tale is the brilliant music by Australian composer David Hirschfelder who sets the atmosphere, and effectively brings out the mood when the ghost of the deceased first wife of Liang, Mei Yi (Emma Yong), appears to Bak Chuan at the funeral. The lavish use of the deep sounds of the cello make the ambience more brooding when required, and slides easily on to a higher pitch, fashioning a lighthearted tone for the contrasting happiness and gaiety of the party scene.
As the enchanting instrumentals shift the film to reach the climax, we look forward to ultimately unveiling the enigma of Bak Chuan’s death. The cinematic approach changes as we see more flashbacks of the father-in-law’s dark secret being exposed, showing how Mei Yi died. However, UrbanWire still can’t fully comprehend the true cause of Bak Chuan’s heart attack, and felt strangely unsettled even after 100 minutes of being entertained by fabulous cinematography with elaborate settings and extravagant props, such as huge chandeliers and golden pineapples which are symbols of Bak Chuan’s great wealth.