By Alfonse Chiu
(1,700 words, 7-minute read)
Content warning: References to violent or disturbing behaviour
In late January 1981, the body of a young girl was discovered in a brown PVC bag about a metre high by a young man in Toa Payoh. She had died from asphyxiation; a later autopsy showed signs of sexually assault. Slightly more than a week later, under a tree just metres away, the body of a young boy was found. He had been drowned. A blood trail led the investigating officers to a nearby flat, which contained an altar and religious paraphernalia. The three occupants, a middle-aged Chinese man and self-styled medium named Adrian Lim, and his “Holy Wives” Catherine Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong, were arrested. Following a protracted investigation and a well-publicised trial, the trio were executed in 1988, leaving behind an indelible scar on Singapore’s collective consciousness for years to come. In the wake of such an affair, remembered by many as the Toa Payoh ritual murders, it would seem inappropriate to adapt it for the silver screen; if not due to the weight of the story at hand, then at least out of respect for the victims’ families – note that this was an era that predated the ubiquitous true crime content of our current days. Not one but two adaptations would emerge in the following decade: Medium Rare (alternatively titled The Medium in some territories, which misses the grisly pun) was released in 1991, and God or Dog in 1997, leaving behind a legacy of true crime film adaptations that, to this date, no other Singaporean crime can rival.
In Medium Rare, the earlier of the two, Beverley Watson (Jamie Marshall) is an Australian journalist dispatched to Singapore to cover the story of a mysterious medium, the handsome and surprisingly ripped Daniel Lee (Dore Kraus). Between lounging around big expensive hotel rooms and pursuing leads that consist of tip-offs from a lone informant friend, Beverley takes pictures of the hunky villain, muses about the mystic practices she hopes to uncover that must linger like undigested vegetables in the underbelly of cosmopolitan Singapore, and eventually becomes his second consort.
Little is spoken of the anomalous religious syncretism that is observed – Daniel goes into a trance, invokes the Monkey King, prances around with a parang in an imitation of Chinese opera, and calls his house an ashram—nor the ludicrousness of his lived situation: he practices in a large colonial bungalow which he shares with his live-in partner and seemingly unpaid assistant, the beleaguered Yoke Lin (Margaret Chan, who also co-wrote the final screenplay), with dubious income that comes from the inconsistent appointments he takes at his house, seemingly not bound to any forms of legal obligation or licensing requirements. Indeed, everything really interesting about the situation goes unquestioned, for example, the circumstances that accompanies Daniel’s rise to avowed psychic stardom whilst still maintaining a profile low enough for a journalist to have difficulty finding him, his amalgamation of religious lexicons and ritual that are laughable and plain offensive, or even the clientele that are mostly there for sexual, not spiritual, healing. Whatever the opposite of a Pulitzer there is, Beverley seems destined for it.
Instead, the camera seems to alternate its longing eye between the creature comforts of a modernising Singapore (Pan Pacific Hotel was rumoured to have sponsored almost half a million dollars in kind, and it shows) and sensationalised renditions of local life such as gratuitous close-ups of Thaipusam proceedings, while our foreign reporter protagonist recoils in horror, though contextual logic demands that she surely must have seen religious rituals practised somewhere before.
The grievances with the production are endless, and even the ending – the promised child murders, as morbid as it is – fails to materialise, possibly so that the production could keep its PG rating and apparent mass audience appeal. The film is very much underdone, possibly raw, and definitely fated for the rubbish chute. Medium Rare fails as entertainment, because it is not well-executed as a film itself – the narrative is inadequate and riddled with inaccuracies, the performances are weak, its representation of women and emotional abuse is questionable and has aged terribly when viewed from the current day context, and the editing is so uneven that the film quite literally appears schizophrenic.
In apparent pursuit of the glamour of a Hollywood production, Medium Rare has chosen to sanitise all the elements and grit that made the original crime into the favourite nightmare of 1980s Singapore. It substitutes the domestic setting and schlubby villains for pristine colonial bungalows, cavernous Peranakan houses, and impeccably groomed foes who might as well grace the cover of a romance novel; the effect here is camp, kitsch, and wholly removed from the real adult fear of a society which had just lost two children to the whims of a demented fraud.
The work also fails as a reflection of society’s fears and anxieties, which horror and crime cinema often function as, because it refuses to investigate the core of what made the original crime terrifying: how innocuous Lim and his accomplices appeared to be, how mundane the environs where the deed occurred had been, and thus by contrast, just how monstrous the crimes were.
In the later God or Dog, an arguably superior film and adaptation, the quest for flair is toned down in favour of a more intimate look at the making of a monster. Centred around Sin (Hugo Ng), a fictionalised version of Lim, the film examines and charts the evolution of a man’s latent desires to a murderous impulse as he morphs from discontented ne’er-do-well to cult leader.
Balefully unsatisfied with the life he shares with his young son and sexually unavailable wife in their small flat, Sin spends his days drinking and bumming around in a nearby bar where he falls under the spell of a faith healer who claims to be able to harness black magic to have it all. Avaricious of the healer’s seemingly limitless power and seductive prowess, Sin becomes his acolyte, only to discover that he is a fraud, and is simply a petty criminal preying on the vulnerable psyche of his followers.
Sin eventually engineers a ploy to best him—involving breaking a table in two in a fit of supposed divine rage—and usurps his position as the resident psychic of the neighbourhood. He bags his former master’s date as a lover, whom he parades in front of his wife in a perverse domestic power play, until she can no longer endure the abuse and departs the family home with their son.
Free of familial burdens, Sin converts his home into his very own temple and continues where his deposed master left off. He acquires a second lover, an emotionally vulnerable girl deposited in his care by her desperate mother. All these come to a head after a victim refuses to cave in to the trio’s manipulation, leading to a lengthy police investigation that infuriates a humiliated Sin, who then quietly plots, and enacts bloody revenge against society.
While it lacked the panache that Medium Rare tried hard to project, God or Dog was much more effective because of its greater awareness of the source material. The film’s almost documentarian approach in tracing the development of the crime within its own context and space is effective in prompting a disturbing familiarity for its audience, who can situate for themselves the evil that could be unfolding right next door to them.
Though it is equally guilty of lapsing into the same hysterical visual cinematic language as its predecessor – the ending sequence where the father of the victim falls to his knees and hallucinates comes to mind, alongside Sin’s numerous encounters in the rain – in God or Dog the excursions into camp are much more bearable because of the ways it allows for the articulation of sentiments beyond the stilted and unnatural standard broadcast English vernacular that ruined Medium Rare. By using a melange of other tongues like Cantonese, Hokkien, and Mandarin, God or Dog creates a more granular and naturalistic soundscape that lends credibility to the lives and actions of its characters.
Tragedies and traumas can often shape a nation’s psyche in ways that not even the most egregious tale of triumph can muster. In most cases, the wounds left behind in the social fabric, on the lay definitions of morality and what is morally acceptable, scar badly, forming keloids of taboo and hushed whispers dolled over by state narratives of resilience and solidarity. For the rare exception, a national monster (or in the case of the kaijus and Japan’s own explosive history with atomic bombs, a national genre) will emerge: the Germans have Nosferatu, commonly argued to be representative of the collective anguish experienced by the Weimar Republic after World War I.
For Singapore – the Singapore that emerged from the gloom of World War II, the Emergency and Independence, which revised itself beyond the confines of history, and planted itself firmly in the consciousness of modernity – it would seem that our national monster should be Adrian Lim. Suffused with an insatiable lust for consumption, for subjugation, for proving himself exceptional, and being willing to go after it with dogged determination, with deception and so much self-righteousness that convinced so many, Lim holds a dark mirror to the undercurrent simmering beneath the surface of contemporary Singapore society, and shows us even now that we are only a decision away from becoming our worst selves. He even has two films to prove it.
Medium Rare (1991) and God or Dog (1997) were presented at State of Motion 2019. God or Dog was shown on 29 June, Medium Rare was shown on 30 June. More info about the films can be found here.
Alfonse Chiu is the creative director and editor-at-large of independent film editorial platform, SINdie, and an independent culture journalist. His writings have appeared in publications such as Kinema: a journal for film and audiovisual media, published by the University of Waterloo, the National Museum of Singapore’s Cinematheque Quarterly, and Hyperallergic. His current research interests include spatial representations and occupancy in urban settings, independent Southeast Asian cinema, and the discursive potentials of self-organising artistic communities.