Directed by: Ken Kwek
Distributed by: TBA
Written by Patrick Hao
Ken Kwek has always been a provocateur in his home country of Singapore so it is only natural that the relationship between artists and government censorship is constantly on his mind. His image of Singapore is almost dystopian in his second feature “#LookAtMe”. While the city is without a doubt beautiful, there is a hollowness and literal emptiness to it all, something that is a direct criticism of the Singaporean government.
The title “#LookAtMe” is a reference to the star-searching twin brothers Sean and Rick Marzuki (both played by the actor yao). These twins want to be social media stars and make prank videos with little success. When Sean goes to a Hillsong-like church with his girlfriend, he is horrified to hear a deeply homophobic sermon delivered by the pastor (Adrian Pang). The sermon especially hits a nerve as Sean’s brother, Rick, is gay. This anger leads to Sean recording and releasing a YouTube reaction video calling out the pastor and going viral.
Unfortunately for Sean, homosexuality is outlawed in Singapore and his speech defending it puts Sean in prison. This marks a drastic change in tone for the film. While the beginning feels like a trifle, once Sean is in prison, “#LookAtMe” becomes a surrealist drama of survival. Scenes with a female psychiatrist asking Sean if she is attractive to test his sexuality or the scenes involving Sean with his well-meaning lawyer who has taken on 20 LGBT cases and has lost all of them, point to just how much this state-sanctioned censorship is stacked against him. The prison scenes are almost like “Papilion-lite” as the trivialities and brutality of prison life slowly make Sean crazy.
Meanwhile, outside of prison, Rick’s guilt over his brother going to jail for his rights emboldens him to fight even harder against such injustice. His battle slowly grows a movement, first from his mother (Pam Oei, wife of Kwek), and then from his neighbors around him. It is refreshing to see a gay character that is not coming out or trying to make his family accept him. Instead, this film is about his awoken political consciousness.
Kwek’s film is one with immense empathy and righteous anger. The film is partially based on the case of a 16-year-old who was imprisoned for a rant against Christianity. It is interesting that this is the second film since I began covering the New York Asian Film Festival (the other being “Tiong Bahru Social Club” also starring yao) in which Singapore’s government is shown in a negative light, using humor to shine a light at the atrocities. “#LookAtMe” is not just a straight drama, often having rather silly moments and sophomoric humor. But, it is almost necessary to undercut the oppressive moments. Yet, “#LookAtMe” feels incomplete. Maybe it is because there is no satisfying conclusion that is to be had from this story. The Singaporean government still bans homosexuality and has the ability to censor any opposition towards their rigid laws. Kwek has mentioned on numerous occasions that he is unsure if this film will ever play in his home country. There is an act of retribution that is supposed to serve as a happy ending of sorts, but when you use the tools of the oppressors to oppress your enemies, is that truly comeuppance?
“#LookAtMe” was screened as part of the 2022 edition of New York Asian Film Festival.
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