Cult Cinema: Perth (2004) - Reviewed

Back in the mid-2000s when the home video company Tartan Asia Extreme was at its peak, a number of Asian films from around the world pushing the boundaries in terms of sex and violence in film found their way into England and the United States through the now defunct Asia Extreme label.  Near the end of their run one such film which appeared out of nowhere in 2004 was a gritty, rough and ragged little indie named Perth.  Sold to international markets as “the Signaporean answer to Taxi Driver”, with the poster image of the protagonist smoking a cigarette in front of a yellow taxicab, from the outset this looked like another Scorsese ripoff.  Upon closer inspection however the film reveals deeper unexpected truths about a middle-aged man at crosswords with a rapidly changing society that has moved on without him.
After losing his job as a security guard, Harry Lee (a brilliant Lim Kay Tong) longs to escape the streets of Signapore and his humdrum job as a cabbie to live the remainder of his lifetime in the city of Perth, Australia.  His former security guard boss, now fronting a prostitution ring, enlists Harry to transport call girls to clients for some extra cash.  On the new gig he grows fond of a Vietnamese prostitute named Mai (Ivy Cheng) who shares Harry’s dream to escape the slums of Signapore.  Growing steadily more-irate with frightening and completely unexpected outbursts of violence, soon Harry finds himself spiraling downward into a Hell of crimson and death.

Shot on Super 16mm before being blown back up to 35mm, the first thing one notices watching writer-director Djinn’s (pseudonym for Ong Lay Jinn) riff on Scorsese is how grungy the film feels.  Unlike Taxi Driver which illustrates a stark contrast between the central protagonist’s world and the real world, all of Perth is drenched in ugliness with no clear escape route available.  Moreover, Taxi Driver concerns a man living in the moment whereas Perth chronicles a crusty old man trapped in the past.  While both films touch on existential loneliness and how society itself plays a role in the creation of its antiheroes, Perth in contrast focuses on a man at the end of his rope growing closer and closer to cracking.
The film rests solely on the shoulders of the lanky and wrinkled Lim Kay Tong who, like Anthony Wong before him, exudes a sense of danger and menace without saying a word.  Narrated by Tong throughout, we find ourselves empathizing with the man until his explosive outbursts of brutality erupt without warning.  Where the film suffers however is the sound design which is tinny and scratchy though for some that only adds an extra layer of filth to the already grotesque proceedings. 

Yes the film is indeed derivative of the legendary epic of 1970s cinema which came before it and no it will not be the last time another filmmaker is influenced by Taxi Driver.  However where the film succeeds is offering international viewers a snapshot of modern Signaporean slums in all their ingloriousness.  Technically speaking this isn’t a very handsome film to look at with even uglier characters to be around but for what it is worth Perth manages to deliver a brass knuckled punch that will surprise and startle even the most dedicated followers of Asia Extreme cinema.

--Andrew Kotwicki