Harry Lee is a middle-aged Singaporean who has been unable to keep up with the modern changes in society, and has been left behind by a world that does not care. His dream, which he can not help but talk about to anyone within earshot, is to emigrate to Perth in Australia. He has been saving and saving, but when he is laid off from his current job, he must reduce himself to driving a taxi to make ends meet.
It is as a taxi driver that Harry, along with his longtime friend Selva, is tapped by his old supervisor Angry Boy to become a driver for an underground prostitution trafficking racket. The high wage he'll receive will help him to get to Perth that much faster, and which can not come any sooner. For the city of Singapore seems to be closing in around Harry, and what little control he has over his life is quickly slipping away. Harry's first assignment is to become the driver of Mai, a Vietnamese woman who has come to raise money to pay off a gambling debt and support her family. Harry becomes instantly enchanted by her. When Harry's payday comes, he asks that Angry Boy use the money to buy Mai's freedom.
After a night of heavy drinking with Selva, Harry believes that Angry Boy has not kept his promise. In reality, it is his boss who says no to Mai's release, but Harry only sees it as Angry Boy being unfaithful to his word. In Harry's drunken stupor, he surmises that the only way to set Mai free is a brutal assault on the club armed only with his trusty machete!
For many people, the first real introduction to Singapore was in 1994 with the highly-publicized caning of Michael Fay for vandalizing cars. From here, we quickly learned of Singapore's tough enforcement on crimes and keeping the city clean. Director and writer Djinn (who real name is Ong Lay Jinn) attempts here to show that while Singapore tries to keep a very clean public image, the reality is, like any other big city, it has problems with crime, drugs, and a very real sex industry. His vision of Singapore is a grimy and gritty, literally shown via the quality of the filmstock. Many of the scenes take place within the shadow of night, while the few day scenes are smeared with an ugly hue.
PERTH suffers from being unavoidably comparable to TAXI DRIVER, in that Harry is an ex-soldier now making a living driving taxis, and eventually comes to the conclusion that by saving a prostitute, he will in turn redeem his own life. Unfortunately, PERTH suffers further with the fact that Harry is not likable in the least. He drinks constantly, he beats his wife, and there is nothing given to the viewer to allow a moment compassion to him for the way life has treated him. If anything, Harry's current life is wholly of his own creating. However, Kay Tong Lim, who portrays Harry, does give a very compelling performance and while you may not like Harry, watching the pathetic character at least is not boring.
The saving grace for PERTH, is that Harry serves as only a piece of paper to send a message written by Djinn to the world from Singapore. Through Harry, he is able to talk about the rampant consumerism that has taken over Singapore, the loss of importance on the individual, and above all to show the many blemishes of the city that are desperately attempted to by hidden, not least of which is the prostitution and sex trafficking ring that permeates through the poor sections, and the very cruel business that it is. If the film does find its audience though, it will most likely be due to the final scene, which as with TAXI DRIVER, crescendos in a brutal bloodbath, and while quick, is a great payoff after watching ninety minutes of Harry spiraling downward.