Sell Out! is one of those movies that could have been so much better had it overcome so many "if's." If its ideas had been less scattershot and more focused, it might have been an incisive satire about the (sometimes) poisonous nature of the need for money. If its performers were allowed to primarily speak in their native Malay and Mandarin instead of butchering the timing of the back and forth jokes between the characters in graceless, often flat English. If only the lead actor Peter Davis wasn't so incredibly bland and out to sea in his role, then a little charisma could have patched over some of the many problems with this clunky Malaysian comic musical with its heart in the right place.
Sell Out! (also known by its more overly complicated form, $311.0u7!) is the second effort from writer/director Yeo Joon Han, who has quite a few interesting ideas in mind about the nature and marketing of film, television, and consumer products, and he has a few ideas that are thuddingly obvious with the jokes to match. The two leads are hapless but talented engineer Eric Tan (Davis) and ambitious to a fault and shallow documentarian, Rafflesia Pong (Jerrica Lai). Both work for the FONY corporation, and the joke in the corporate name tells you about how deep much of Sell Out! will get. Both Eric and Rafflesia are under fire from their often inept, circuitous, and casually cruel bosses who want Eric to design a machine that's unoriginal and will break within a year, and demand that Rafflesia bring in the ratings with a show about dying people in the minutes before they meet their ends.
Added to this mix is a subplot where the bosses take Eric to an exorcist to remove his creative side, resulting in two Erics: one creative and principled, and the other, sullen and ready to sell out for a buck. This is one of the most clever bits in the movie and it's nearly completely forgotten about until near the end of the film which is also actually very clever. Eric also happens to be in love with Rafflesia for wholly unclear reasons: she's deeply unpleasant and doesn't reciprocate his feelings in the least. She's conniving, bitter, mean, and dishonest, and we never get a sense that there's a decent person inside of her until an unearned turn in the final act.
From there, the arc of the movie is Rafflesia's attempts to grab ratings while Eric slowly runs out of money and the will to live as both realize that they're not going to get to do what they want to do in life and make money at the same time.
On two fronts the movie works: the musical numbers are a little rough, but that's actually part of their charm and one of the benefits of the performers' rough delivery. I actually really like the sincere but unpolished singing from each of the actors and the songs, while not lyrical masterpieces and to the point and clever (the "Money" song being the best of the lot). The second area where the movie succeeds is its look: Han knows how to capture a shot and again, that last act is delirious and a little weird and kind of sad in a swirl of reality TV tension and musical excess.
That's maybe the weirdest thing about Sell Out!: I ended the movie on a pretty high note based on that inventive last act, but almost immediately as I started considering the movie, it started to fall apart and the things that worked were overrun by the things that didn't.
I will say this, though: I'd happily submit to another movie by Han. As a filmmaker, he has heart and that goes a long way with me (sucker that I am). He dared to try new things with his film--it's just too bad he didn't quite figure out what he wanted to say.
Sell Out! will be screening as part of the 10th annual New York Asian Film Festival on Monday, July 4th. You can find out more information at the NYAFF website.