Promising ingredients for a juicy murder mystery are spoiled by weak plotting and anemic drama in “Precious Is the Night.” Set among Singapore’s wealthy elite and their household servants in 1969, this plodding tale about a randy doctor involved with an unhappily married socialite and her two housemaids is impeccably decorated and handsomely photographed but fails to produce much tension or intrigue. The first narrative feature by renowned commercials director Wayne Peng played local cinemas in April and has been selected as Singapore’s official entry in the 2022 international feature Oscar race.
The film’s framing device involves a contemporary writer (Chuando Tan) discovering old newspaper stories about the violent deaths of wealthy woman Ku Yang and attractive physician Dr. Tan on a dark and stormy night. Intrigued by his uncanny resemblance to Dr. Tan, the Writer begins bashing out a novel based on known facts of the case and his speculations on what may have triggered the tragedy. In a very strange and disorienting move the Writer types his tale in English while his voice-over narration is in Mandarin.
Early sequences lay what appears to be fertile ground for an engaging tale of lust, jealousy and murder. Most of the action takes place in a fabulous midcentury-modern mansion on Wilkinson Road in Singapore’s upscale Katong neighborhood. The lavishly appointed dwelling is more like a tomb for Ku Yang (Taiwanese model Nanyeli, debuting), a depressed former movie starlet from a humble background in China. Married to Old Master (Tay Ping Hui), a moneybags who lives elsewhere and wants Ku Yang solely for the purpose of producing an heir, the lonely lady spends her days waiting for house calls from hunky Dr. Tan (also played by Tan). The silver-tongued lothario reads passages from “Madame Bovary” and injects Ku Yang with amphetamines during their steamy afternoon trysts. Listening at the bedroom door and peeping through keyholes is Bi Xia (Chang Tsu-lei), long-serving maid to Ku Yang and also bedding the lustful medico. New to the household is junior domestic helper Bao Cui (Chen Yixin), an innocent 18-year-old from the sticks who suffers from epilepsy.
Instead of picking up the pace and adding layers of intrigue once primary story elements and murder suspects have been introduced, Peng’s screenplay slows down markedly and fails to delve deeply into the minds and possible motives of its characters. Repetitive, mechanical shots of the Writer at his desk and close-ups of his typewriter keys thudding away do little to create mystery or generate tension. Portrayed in the manner of a cool and calm film noir-style detective attempting to solve a fascinating puzzle from long ago, the Writer does little more than dispense basic information until the film is almost over. At this point he turns into a nervous wreck when the characters in his mind start talking back. “I feel I am the characters,” he says unconvincingly.
Aside from brief scenes in which the drama is given a boost by Old Master’s acid-tongued ex-wife (local acting royal Xiang Yun, mother of Chen Xiyin), Ku Yang’s snooty English teacher (Wong Ruen Qing) and her dismissive etiquette instructor (Clare Law), “Precious” ambles along more like a stodgy chamber piece than the slow-burn thriller it sets out to be. Emblematic of its storytelling shortcomings is the character of Old Master. Though never properly seen and given no dialogue, he is presented as a major suspect.
Written, directed and photographed by Peng, “Precious” is packed with striking shots, but too many are at the disservice of narrative propulsion. Every time a match is struck or a cigarette is lit the camera lingers on extreme close-ups of flames and smoke for much longer than is required. The same applies to set decorations such as old transistor radios, rotary dial telephones and manual typewriters. By drawing attention so frequently to such accouterments the film sometimes has the feel of an antiques catalog being slowly thumbed through.
Performances are generally fine from a cast that’s not given much to work with. Lead actor Tan, a model-turned-photographer who is famous for looking at least 20 years younger than his 54 years (at the time of filming) acquits himself well enough in a screen debut with ample footage of his muscly physique. The soundtrack makes good use of old Singaporean songs including “This Precious Night,” the 1967 classic by Mandopop star Ciu Ping, who was known as “the queen of expressive feelings.”