Mister John (2013)

Mister John

An Irishman, whose marriage is in crisis, travels to Singapore after the death of his brother there and becomes drawn into the life the dead man left behind.

Mister John

Only God Forgives by Alexa Dalby

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Aidan Gillen, in his first starring big-screen role after acclaim in television series Queer As Folk and The Wire, gives a subtle and moving performance as Gerry, an Irishman emotionally adrift in Southeast Asia – a beautifully shot, but strangely menacing, Singapore. His older brother John, a bar owner there, has died suddenly by drowning, the circumstances unclear. Knowing little about John’s life in Singapore, Gerry arrives alone for his funeral. At the airport, he finds his luggage has gone missing, but over time, we see he has brought with him plenty of emotional baggage. He is not just mourning his brother, but also fleeing from the grief of discovering his wife’s infidelity back at home in London.

John’s beautiful widow Kim (Zoe Tay, a huge TV star in Singapore in her first English film role) persuades Gerry to stay with her and their teenage daughter, Gerry’s niece, after his first night in a hotel is disturbed in ways he does not fully understand by people who had known his brother. Now living in his brother’s house with his family, and with only his dark suit as his luggage still missing, Kim insists he dresses in his dead brother’s clothes. He starts to spend time in the backstreet bar – Mister John’s – that John and Kim ran together. She has reopened it and, on the surface, it seems that normal life has resumed. But her emotional hold on Gerry grows stronger and she starts to treat him as if he will be part of the family permanently.

As Gerry finds out more about his brother’s complicated life and the seedy characters he was involved with, he becomes naively drawn into it and starts to lose a sense of his own identity. The backstreet bar is really a front for prositutes: Kim talks him into a disastrous attempt to collect payment on a mysterious debt from a shady and violent business associate, Lester (Michael Thomas). An undefinable sense of expectation seems to surround him from everyone he meets and increases the pressure he feels under. He learns that when someone drowns, their Buddhist belief is that the Water Ghost waits for a replacement – and then the drowned person can come back. The implication seems to be that he should sacrifice himself and this idea preys on his mind, compelling him to visit to the place on the lake where his brother drowned. There, he’s bitten by a snake, but, adding to his feeling of unease and unreality, the doctor who treats him tells him that he won’t feel like himself for a while.

Choppy flashbacks, home videos of his brother relaxing with Kim and Lester, and at work interviewing bar girl candidates, and surreal dream sequences that merge his troubled home life with his wife (Claire Keelan) and daughter in a cold, white and sterile London with his exotic life and developing relationship with Kim in brightly coloured Singapore add to his feeling of dislocation, of a man losing his sense of who he is and flirting with the temptation of taking on someone else’s ready-made identity. When at last the day of his brother’s funeral comes, he feels people at the wake are looking at him as if he is already a ghost. He realises he must make a decision – go home and rebuild his life with his wife and daughter or replace his dead brother and become Mister John.

The writers/directors are Irish couple Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy. Their award-winning debut feature film Helen in 2009, was another story of someone finding themselves merging into another’s identity – a student who is asked to play a missing person in a police reconstruction becomes immersed in the role. This second feature of theirs, Mister John, is beautifully shot and acted, low key and its premise is haunting – like the memory of Mister John.

Mister John is released on 27th September 2013 in the UK

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