Murder in San Jose by Chong Mui-Ngam

April Fools’ Day saw me chilling (bone-chilling that is) with the cast of “Murder in San Jose”, a psychological thriller which premiered at the 37th Hong Kong Arts Fest to rave reviews from the media and audiences, having swept four major awards at the 2009 Hong Kong Drama Awards, including Best Script, Best Director and Best Actress for Alice Lau. A special commission for the 2009-2011 Hong Kong Arts Fest, and counting this run in Singapore, it has been staged more than 30 times. Fascinated with such a track record and wondering how the delivery of a Hong Kong play can be, plus this being the first time the Esplanade is actually presenting a Cantonese theatre production, what better way to get acquainted with the play in language than to watch one in action?

Starring veteran stage lead Alice Lau, with the renowned stageplay genius Tang Wai-kit and the ever talented Kearen Pang, the charm of this intense psychological thriller lies in the hidden conflicts of its three protagonists as it probes the layers of human emotions and relationships, between husband and wife, wife and friend, friend and husband as well as a general ill sense of foreboding cultivated throughout the whole play. This wasn’t a whodunnit mystery. The title of the play hinted at murder, but betrayed no such intention until the denouement. Rather, it was a sequence of events from what seemed like a marriage-on-rocks drama that led to a more sinister truth.

In an interesting prelude, characters went about their daily routines without the traditional curtain lift signaling the start of the play – so while the audience was still entering, the characters were going about their kitchen chores, and left many wondering if the show had already started. Leaving one with that feeling of unreality and uncertainty, it was apparent that the stage had already been set – the audience was made to feel like they are observing one within one’s walls, where reality was but within one’s mind. So we were prepped for the scenes to follow even as that scene faded out with the start of Act 1 proper.

Set in an isolated suburb in San Jose, Ling (Alice Lau) had been staying there with her husband, Tang (Tang Wai-kit) for some years now and expecting their first child. Her childhood friend, Sammi (Kearen Pang) pops by for an unexpected visit.

Things ain’t so pretty as Sammi observes, with Ling in her dominant controlling self and Tang, her seemingly emasculated husband who’s dominated by Ling even as he tries to be an online entrepreneur. Sammi was unwittingly embroiled in the struggle between the couple which soon spirals into a showdown as a result of Ling’s sabotage on a possible business deal for Tang (the process of which saw a supporting cast delivering a few laughs and snide remarks about the political socio-economic facets of life in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.)

Then it comes out. The murder. And what a showdown it was, with the unexpected outpouring of secrets and the poor Sammi who finds herself caught and unable to escape from the couple’s web of lies and depravity.  The play ends on a chilling note, where everything returns to a fake sense of normalcy and nothing remains, except a lone suitcase that once belonged to Sammi, and a couple who continues to be forever bound to each other by murder in San Jose.

I shan’t betray the beauty of the play by revealing the exact details and nature of the murder, but when the truth came to light, the audience was left with a different perspective of the whole play, right down to its double meaning dialogue and humour – a truly intelligent touch, much like a combination of the Sixth Sense and the ever puzzling matrix of Inception. The script was tight, fluid and well-written and the cast executed a class act. Even though there was no intermission, the plot was fully engaging and the two hours kept the audience moving along with the story swiftly, building on the curiosity of what the murder could actually be, only to be delivered in a swift flash that sends resounding waves of realisation in one split second. Notably, this was one of the better plays I’ve watched so far this year, and I will not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who’s keen on a good ol’ psychological journey of suspense.

What ensued after the play was a scandalacious discussion with my evening companion on the conspiracy and meaning of the play as well as its endless possibilities of what might have happened to Sammi. Looks like I might need to review the script to see if I can shed any light on this, which fortunately, has been published (in Chinese & English). Might serve as a good bedtime read, for those of us disturbed folks out there.

Guest post by Jay Kohl

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