bubble city - image by J
There is nothing correct - politically speaking - about Saint Jack, the 1979 film by Peter Bogdanovich based on Paul Theroux's novel of the same name.
A Chinese shopkeeper repeatedly refers to the American pimp Jack Flowers (Peter Gazzara) as ang moh, and eventually gets chided by the deadpan Jack "hey, you don't want me to call you chink" (or something like that). The British colonial castoffs in Singapore get drunk, prance around in their undies, mumble some cynicism and sleep with the prostitutes Flowers pimps. The Americans are horny Michael Fays off to Vietnam or men in cowboy hats and big cars. And of course, our favourite Asian men are either loutish gangsters with no style even when they swear, a dwarf, grouchy suspicious old men in a shophouse (or behind the bar counter), or a pimply teenage male prostitute along Tanglin Road. The first Indian woman the camera has any interest in is a Ceylonese "black" beauty who later unravels her sari and becomes Flowers' bedmate. And there are plenty of Chinese tarts with hearts - for Jack the saint, of course - even his Ah Mah loves Jack enough to nag him to eat everytime she appears - "if don't eat you will die."
But despite or maybe because of all this, the film is not dishonest about its essentially white/caucasian, male view of this island in the 70s. And while the writer/director may intend for the island to be the other character in the film (in a pointed scene, Jack Flowers tells a British visitor the Sang Nila Utama story - and how he named the island Lion City after seeing Tigers - yeah), the truth is that this island, its people and its context, is but a backdrop for what is essentially a story about an American middle-aged drifter in the tropics who is both trapped and redeemed by his romance of being an American middle-aged drifter in the tropics.
The title "Saint" and his surname Flowers is therefore both innocence and crude irony - all the "de-flowered" women and boys. When the island gangsters capture and tatoo cheap insults all over both his arms, he goes and tatoos flowers over them. Hearing one of his prostitutes lament about her boyfriend, he promptly removes his watch and gives it to her for her to appease her man. But he is, after all, her pimp. Paid handsomely to take photographs of an American senator in a tryst with a male prostitute, he in his final "redemptive" act, decides to destroy the photographs (and in doing, destroys his lucrative business contract providing "R&R" to visiting GIs) - but we also see him walking back into the squalid streets of this island to pimp some more.
image by J
Even if you live on this island and watch only action/thrillers/horror flicks, Saint Jack will be enjoyable simply for the scenes of the old Seletar airport, Bugis when hawkers would walk by and place dildos for sale on the table (or so the film portrays) and prostitutes (transverstite?) would sport big white afro wigs a la a Wong Kar Wai character, the relatively unchanged Raffles Hotel, a Shangri La hotel that is seemingly set in the wild... bum boats carrying goods in the Singapore River and a grotty Clarke Quay before it was disneyfied for tourists and yuppies. Heck, so what if all this only perpetuates the idea of the seedily "exotic" East and our own sad, distorted nostalgia!
It's a surprisingly watchable film and Ben Gazzara's portrayal of Jack Flowers so effective attracts and repels.
p/s Saint Jack is available on DVD at HMV or your regular video store.