Published Sep 01, 2001
It's never been the most highly regarded of Shakespeare's plays, but "Romeo and Juliet" seems to be the most infinitely adaptable. The latest entry in the parade of "Romeo and Juliet" film pastiches is "Chicken Rice War" by Singaporean director Cheah Chee Kong, who prefers the nom de guerre of CheeK. As in "Shakespeare in Love," the play is woven into the story as a play within the film - a modern spin on a familiar Shakespearean gambit, but the tone here is even lighter and broader than in the film that swept the Oscars a couple of years back.
Standing in as the feuding Montagues and Capulets are the Wongs and Changs - rival chicken rice dynasties whose stalls in one of Singapore's hawker markets are side by side. The blood between them is bad and festering, apparently rooted in each family's jealous guarding of its respective secret recipe and various other grievances so old that all either side can remember is that they're sworn enemies. Inevitably, the Wong's son Fenson falls helplessly in love with the Chang's prima donna daughter Audrey, a young woman as vain and spoiled as she is beautiful. Callow though he is, Fenson ardently memorises "Romeo and Juliet" and manages to replace Audrey's hunky but dim boyfriend as Romeo to Audrey's Juliet in their school production of the play, and of course, life ends up imitating art, or more accurately, art imitates art, even if they don't litter the stage with bodies by the end.
"Chicken Rice War" takes the tragedy and good-naturedly makes it the stuff of farce, but this is also a film that crackles with wit and energy. It's like seeing "Pulp Fiction" or "Chungking Express" for the first time, at a time when their like hadn't really been seen before, and the fact that the predominant language of the film is "Singlish" only adds to the frisson. It bespeaks the confusion and slightly dizzy creative energy of a conservative society making an uneasy truce with all the cacophony and garish hues of contemporary pop culture. Even through all the whimsical pranks the aptly named CheeK plays with filmic form, it turns out that even one of the slighter Shakespearean tragedies resonates above the din.