Knowing what he knows now, Judge Dennis Prince wishes he had eaten the worm instead.
Do you know who your true friends are?
Work. Pressure. Love. Jealousy. Deceit. Rage. Revenge. In Jonathan Lim's Tequila it's just another day at the office.
Maybe it's time to switch to decaf.
Facts of the Case
Four friends—Jason, Mike, Noel, and Tien—collectively find themselves at life's crossroads. Twentysomethings all, they gather one evening to shoot pool, toss back shots of Jose Cuervo, and engage in discussions of how they'll take the next step into the real world of work, love, marriage, and success. Mike, the "alpha male" of the group, is determined to carve a fortune for himself in the booming dot.com world. Friend Jason is frustrated he can't forge his own way, but pledges himself to work alongside Mike. Noel is less driven, and intends to find his own path to success without all the angst-inducing ambition that seems to propel Mike. Tien is the quiet one, the fellow who seems to have trouble asserting himself; the one who is easily convinced and coerced by the insistent Mike. Then Natasha happens by—a beautiful young woman who captures the hearts of both Mike and Tien at first glance. It was inevitable which of the two would gain this lovely's hand.
Three years later, Mike is on top of his game, heading a highly successful Internet startup company, with Jason in tow as an employee. The mounting pressure to maintain a successful stature is taking its toll on the headstrong entrepreneur, however, leading Mike to depend upon the consolation of the Cuervo. Mike is losing his grip on the situation, as well as the loyalty of Jason, who is continually on the receiving end of the embattled entrepreneur's tirades. Noel has opted for a quieter life—married and with a small child—yet he has become the epitome of the henpecked husband. Although Tien has been out of touch for several years, he unexpectedly contacts the other three, announcing his pending marriage. The four reconvene in a nightclub, to again verbally jest and joust over a bottle of tequila—but the once-timid Tien will drop a bombshell that will ultimately upend these longstanding relationships.
"What we wanted to prove to everyone is we could make something out of nothing as long as we were determined to and never gave up."—Jonathan Lim, Director
It seems to be the mantra of every independent filmmaker—he who would arm himself with a hand-held video camera and attempt to create a truly breakthrough "indie" picture that will capture the attention of the mainstream filmgoer. Unfortunately, too many of these filmmaker dreams wind up becoming nightmares for we who are subjected to manic cinematography, amateurish acting, and obnoxious scores. Thanks to the easy access to technology today—technology that can be used to film, edit, score, and distribute direct-to-DVD pictures—wide-eyed wannabes can now realistically bring a pet project to fruition. That's not always a good thing.
Tequila is just such a picture. It was shot direct to digital video, and features (both in front of and behind the camera) the friends and employees of first-time director Jonathan Lim. Seemingly conscious of the "home movie" look that afflicts (and generally causes immediate dismissal of) these handmade productions, Lim elects to apply filters to add texture—sometimes a deep graininess—apparently to achieve a sort of mock 35mm look. It's a noticeable attempt that's not entirely ineffective (at least I don't feel as if I'm watching outtakes from Funniest Home Videos). His camera work and compositions aren't the most elegant in the world, and often betray the home-grown origin of the picture. He does manage some decent work, though—thankfully, he's not completely chained to the usual hyperkinetic cinematography and editing that typically overpowers such works (although, sadly, he does give in to that temptation frequently in this film). The score works pretty well, with definite praise offered to actress Christine Sham for her hauntingly beautiful vocals and piano accompaniment. The actors—well, they're certainly not professionals and, as the production notes say, all performed on a pro bono basis. It's interesting to see how their performances improve slightly through the course of the 82-minute drama, indicating this film was shot in sequential fashion, with the actors becoming increasingly more comfortable in front of the camera along the way. No, they're not the best performances you'll find; but they're certainly not the worst I've seen, especially when compared to other pocket-change productions.
The film itself is somewhat compelling, filmed in Singapore and apparently a reworking of a 20-minute short previously made by Lim. Its story resonates reasonably well, seemingly set circa 2000 (I didn't quite catch if it was before or after the dot-com crash), as the characters struggle with the reality of the adult world, one that is revved up thanks to the impact of the Internet. The story isn't entirely original; you've seen such human interaction hundreds of times before on the big and small screens, in The Big Chill or even Friends. This particular group is rather dysfunctional, though—the gritty narrative leads us to peer into the darkest recesses of the human drive to succeed, sometimes at the cost of family ties and life-long friendships. Lim explores the façade of success through the character of Mike, who has garnered all the outward trinkets and trappings of financial triumph, yet is haunted by inner demons that reveal the imminent unraveling of the young would-be mogul's existence. Lim indicates he had written the picture based upon his own life experiences, having seen how visions of achievement and motivations to succeed can strain personal relationships and potentially lead to self-destruction. Thankfully, Lim notes that nothing dire has occurred in his life and among his circle of friends; as opposed to the four characters in his film.
It's a story that will keep your attention somewhat, not necessarily because it has any real quality of freshness but, rather, because it plays like something of a "peep show"—almost like a traffic accident that compels you to stop and look; to eavesdrop on the ruination of other people's lives (y'know, the sort of thing that has made Oprah, Montel, and Ricky so perversely popular on the daytime talk-show circuit). If you've ever been involved in the corporate world, been sucked into the inebriating lure of the Internet, or been tempted to roll the dice in the fast-changing business world and have felt and seen the impact of the stress, pressure, and uncertainty that accompanies such endeavors, you might find something to which you can relate in this picture. This film, of course, portrays perhaps the worst possible scenario of what could come of such a venture.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Again, this is a no-budget picture shot directly to digital video. Lim does better than most "indie directors" but still subjects us to spinning camera shots, over-exposed sequences, and pulsating frame-shots. (I suspect this is a habit also borne of trying to whitewash the digital video look.) Some of it gets a bit tiresome. And, in his attempt to be "artistic," some of Lim's imagery is needlessly complex, confusing, and even a bit contradictory to the plot. Of course this is a journey through the embattled consciousness (and subconscious) of Mike, yet we're often uncertain whether we're seeing reality, dream-state conjuring, or tequila-induced hallucinations. To reiterate, it's a picture better than most of its kind, yet it still has a long way to go.
Keep your expectations on the low side and you'll get more out of Jonathan Lim's Tequila than you might expect. I can't find any real compelling draw to it that would lead you to sit through repeated viewings, so I'm recommending a rental over a purchase.
This court will offer extra leniency in this case, since it's a first offense by the young director. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Crimson Forest Films
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