Whilst it is intriguingly stylized and beautifully shot, June in Pieces nevertheless plays out like a series of projections of other more successfully executed films strung together like hollow pastiche.
One of my main gripes with the film is the visual devices it uses to tell its story. Since the main character is conveniently a florist, flowers are used throughout the film as a symbol of his wanderlust affections. When he trims them, it’s a clear, obvious sign that he’s looking for love, but that he doesn’t seem to find any. The symbol is so over-used and clichéd that it hardly has the impact it could possess. The film does not even barely acknowledge the sentimentality of the use of the flowers. He smokes cigarettes to somewhat redundantly represent his loneliness, though it seems to me that he only smokes cigarettes because it looks cool in slow motion.
What I hate the most is how great the short film could have been. The cinematography, albeit pointlessly black-and-white, is nonetheless gorgeous, with the use of contrasts and the empty, often blank compositions expressing more than the film is actually trying to. Where its characters fall flat, with the protagonist’s uncharismatic, monotonous expressions dragging the film into a deeper quagmire, the cinematography makes it partly bearable.
In one of the film’s later scenes, a girl is singing on stage a love ballad a la Blue Velvet. She’s dressed in a stereotypical Asian gown, but is singing an English love ballad. This in and of itself sums up the film’s yearning to port Western works like Taxi Driver and Blue Velvet into an Asian setting. It doesn’t quite work as the style is absorbed as bare homage without subtlety of form. Further, the film functions as a somewhat superficial montage of films that are quintessentially Western, and in that way it lacks anything particularly Singaporean beyond its cast and setting. This is not exactly a flaw, but its intriguing to point out the film’s non-identity as a cultural product.
Yet what frustrated me the most about the scene the most was the part with the protagonist speaking to his friend at one of the tables. The scene looks about as staged, fake and contrived as possible; it has an unmistakably amateur quality about it that immediately took me out of the short film. It made me see the mechanical quality of the story-telling, and the contrived, pale attempt to drive a narrative that lacks any substance beyond being a strange cross between Taxi Driver and Vertigo.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the scene where the KTV manager and his assistant kick out a man from the KTV hub. Watching that scene, I buried my face in my hand, angrily thinking to myself: “I know you’re emulating him, but Scorsese wouldn’t even shoot a scene like that!” There was no point to the scene at all, and the KTV manager’s story arc is hardly elaborated in the film to any degree to justify such a lame, cheap nod to gangster flicks. Yes, it can only be seen as a reference or nod to some other film, because June in Pieces is best seen as a film that exists wholly in a vacuum.
Nevertheless, June in Pieces has a certain zeitgeist working for it. The title credits that spring out with the music give it a kind of energy that is vaguely electrifying. The mood of the film, though often self-absorbed, sometimes accelerates towards energetic storytelling filled with latent humour. All of it, however, gets buried under the film’s own weight and its inability to fully comprehend itself, let alone enabling others to comprehend it. It also has a technical polish in terms of the camera movements and editing; but this technical polish is ineffectually used to tell the story in an exciting or original manner.
I hate to point it out, but the film rests in the shadows of Eric Khoo’s pictures. Whilst the director, Edward tries to steer the film in a slightly different direction, it still possesses the same solipsistic, meandering mood and vaguely dark themes. For instance, June in Pieces’ protagonist shares a similar longing for connection and bonding that Mee Pok Man‘s protagonist yearned for. There are certain themes and ideas that uncannily cut across the films. It also borrows Khoo’s tendencies for montage, but not to the same effect. Here, the film references fall a little flat, and hardly evoke the excitement they should within a cinephile. In many ways, the film is still not bold enough to step out of this shadow and deliver something with a personal, sincere voice that isn’t embedded in film references and the filmic language of Eric Khoo.
It’s a disappointing film, but I’m definitely still going to give this director’s next film another try. Perhaps he can deliver another film that possesses less of the problems that plagued this picture; this film, albeit deeply flawed, contains strains of talent or craft yearning to climb out. Hopefully this is just a transition phase and there’s still some light at the end of the tunnel.