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Review of Royston Tan’s fourth feature film – 12 Lotus

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Yes, there has been an impressive tide of local films washing over the silver screens islandwide these past two months, and the story has been covered far and wide. But history is never fair, be it in keeping records or in making memory choices: its books are selective and biased, favouring the recognizable, that which can be patterned into its embracing folds.

a.jpg12 Lotus, Royston Tan’s fourth sojourn into the realm of feature films, refuses to be consumed just so easily – but for all it’s worth, it should be one to last.

12 Lotus tells of Getai singer Ah Hua’s misfortune over the course of half a lifetime, covering some 30 years and all the misery that she has to endure. After her mother’s death, when the story begins, she finds consolation in a song: 12 Lotus, as performed on those stages during the lunar seventh month festivities, where she lingers about while assisting her father, a backstage musician.

Determined to become a singer herself and clinging to that promise in the shape of a porcelain statue of Guan Yin, the goddess of Mercy, she persists in an environment of stark contrast to the joyous and flashy shows up front. Her abusive father may be a harsh reality, but her dream and love for music bear her up.

As a young adult and now-established professional managed by her dad, Ah Hua, played by Mindee Ong, befriends little Astroboy (Damus Lim) when he miserably fails on stage to serve as his mother’s “last straw” – she consoles him and makes him feel confident again. Somehow, she manages to shine amidst greed and bleakness, thus finally arousing the interest of some sinister elements among the circuit and becoming the focal point to their criminal intent. Singling her out as easy prey, they set up an evil scheme to con her gambling father into practically selling her off. The love and respect she believed she had found in Ah Long, Prince of Getai as played by Qi Yu Wu – it was but a trap. Bartered away for settling the ensuing debts, raped and bereft of her dignity, she flees the naked truth and goes into hiding, both mentally and physically.

b.jpg20 years later, Ah Hua, her role now taken over by Liu Ling Ling, encounters a most unexpected visitation as Ah Long seems to have found his way back to her doorstep – only, it is not him but his double (again, of course, Qi Yu Wu), a petty criminal and neighbourhood cheat desperate to pay back what he owes to even more dodgy folks chasing after him. In her delusion she is once more victimised for her unsuspecting heart – but there begin to appear cracks in the shell of that fictitious life she chose to escape into. She may cast out Astroboy (Hao Hao) in a rash, the sole person who kept her company throughout, but she fights back when the second Ah Long violently reaches for the precious necklace she inherited from her mother.

If it was for the story alone, and what it yields on filmic terms, the array of meticulously crafted scenes and flashy costumes might give you an aspect (and the kind of beauty) not much unlike that of a destination shopping centre: you know it’s well worth taking a look – only, what’s on display is overpriced and the basics missing, you better get those somewhere else. But then, there is the music, of course, and the opera theme tune first and foremost, which changes the tally completely. The songs, though poignant, powerful and memorable (some of them), are vehicles for expression mostly, but the elegiac 12 Lotus stands out. It is the soul of the entire film. It is not just a theme, but a premise. You can meet it on this, if you want; if not, you’ll most likely miss what joy and inner power the movie possesses.

When we first encounter Ah Hua as a little girl, in what is nothing short of a memorable performance by actress Li Bao En, she is portrayed very ably and credibly as a person of courage whose resolve stems from dreaminess – a rare but irresistibly appealing mix indeed. Her on-screen delivery certainly stands out, and fittingly for the role, her introduction sees her backstage but ignorant of the very fact: innocently, she does not think of any difference, but is being held a willing captive by her life-song. Liu Ling Ling in the film’s second half retains these defining traits, the elements of her tragedy, though her presence can be quite overbearing at times. It is only in the mid-section, as Mindee Ong takes over the part, that some of the complexity, that intriguing blend of upright delusion is lost. She, too, has her strong moments for sure, but in all, her rendition, probably the most difficult of the three stages her character is seen in, falls short of conflict and becomes one-dimensional.

c.jpgQi Yu Wu in his double role as Ah Long/Long 2 has a lot to be grateful for in a script that allows him to show that he really can act. His part is never foregrounded but chatoyant in and of itself, and his every appearance simply delightful to watch, successively covering the entire spectrum of the corrupt – a little Mephistophelean jewel in changing costume. All of this is accompanied and counterbalanced by a largely convincing supporting cast. Aaron Tan as Ah Long’s accomplice has all the right slickness and moves to bring about the true gangster atmosphere finely measured almost by himself, and veteran actor Yi Liang Huang as the Lotus’s father also deserves special mention among the many cast of the movie. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that some of the acting displayed in the movie only shows how the lead roles in particular were thought-out in larger than life proportions; and the cast not always able to meet their part. There are about half a dozen instances of severe over-the-top acting in the film that really should have been cleared.

In terms of story build-up and character layout, the film – due to its aforementioned unique nature of being featured on the stage set by its score – achieves to pretty much obliterate that nagging debate of contour-over-substance, which plagues so many musical films. The narrative is served in small entities like the song in chapters that take precedent over continuation. Its characters are just sufficiently mixed as not to become mere stereotypes – you could call them that if you ignored the basic choice which is a genuinely directorial one, namely, to go for a visual song and the keeping with set roles. It is astonishing, then, how it all shapes up to make for some elementary development, basic but strong, which is not without its very own brand of subtlety.

If a single line summary needed to be given of 12 Lotus, it would best be described in a question: What are the benefits of giving? But as for the lead character, that doesn’t explain why she retains no bitterness for all that she’s been made to suffer – not if this were prose, that is. Considering the way in which the film’s narrative is plucked right from the strings of the lyre, your worldly logic does not add up: in every musical accord there is the harmony that elevates. Thus she can persist, and the recounting of the twelve chapters of the theme only reflects and enhances the self-sustaining nature of her confinement “in tune”.

So, what does the bottom line story suggest? Is it a linear deduction of empathy? The empirical verification of a faithful heart by the means of a song? – Probably. In essence, 12 Lotus is more than just a musical drama, it is the live inside of a song. Sequenced not structured (and not evenly) in accordance with its eponymous theme, it lives off consistently contravening reality. A song, after all, is expressing emotions pure and simple, on a level above our ordinary and corrupted speech. It is also a way of containing as much as preserving them by detachedness, unsoiled; thence their naïve appeal. As a genre film, don’t call it formulaic just because it answers to a label, but look for those little breaches or the transformation of a format, which might turn it into something altogether new and noteworthy. Here for once, subject matter and the form it is given are not a match, but identical. What the song generates is the very emotions the film is made of, and what illuminates the images is, again, their song.

But everything is not perfect here. True, there is a lot of music in 12 Lotus, but not enough rhythm – and with that I mean the visual aspect of it. The pacing is partly uneven, which is easily reflected in the varying span of the chapters, couplets most of them, and oftentimes scenic space as well as character potential is left unattended. There is a certain slackness, almost, a lack of spatial and psychological tension holding it all together – and in shape. Every so often, a scene frays into song and dance (in the latter half of the movie in particular) and accentuating the set and stage feeling; which is alright, but preventing the emergence of a more inclusive reach of narrative. But such is the choice the director made and it suits the overall design.

d.jpgThe sheer scale of melodrama is a tad too much, though. From the point of view of the narrative, 12 Lotus stands someplace equidistant to both, Everlasting Regret and La Vie En Rose/La Môme. But neither does it have the idiosyncratic eclecticism of Stanley Kwan’s city life portrait, nor the original scope and inner authenticity of that biographical picture about La Piaf’s tragic story. The approach taken in 12 Lotus is in itself patinated like some of the second half sets it comes in, elaborate as they may be. At no point in the overall delivery do character tableau or editing rationale venture forth to cover any ground beyond home base, but with pacing and unfolding prefer playing it safe. Its storylines move just a bit too plot-ready, perhaps (as when the father dies a timely death), but all things considered, 12 Lotus is a solid piece of filmic telling, convincingly scripted, if not exquisitely so; in its straightforwardness it has all the blessings of accomplished delivery.

The music, obviously, is tremendously important for the film’s overall impact, and it has its most remarkable moments in securing some of the truly masterful transitions which account for its most intriguing quality: the checkless oscillating between the real and the fictitious. And it equally belongs to both these worlds in as far as they are covered by the song and the stage of Ah Hua’s performance through life. The film’s main reference however is not with the medium of the motion picture, but with Hokkien Chinese Wayang. It follows in the nature and fashion of the opera and its ways of expression. If met on these terms, it becomes evident how 12 Lotus features some of the freshest and best in character development in all of Singapore cinema to date.

The film has Alan Yap taking up the place behind the camera as Director of Photography, and it contributes much to the advantage of the outcome. We’ve seen most eloquent testimony of the benefits of this collaboration before. In the form of recent short film After The Rain, it was the addition of Alan’s unpretentious but decisive, his very effective camera work to Royston’s own penchant for the grand scenic gesture, what brought about astounding results of expressive lucidity. And this again shows in 12 Lotus, enhancing the visual fabric of the movie; it is rich while far from being narcissistic, but displaying a good sense of directorial stability. Li Bao En’s part, for instance, treats us to the real Kampong setting – an unlikely location in present-day Singapore – and these scenes are all very convincingly shot, captured with a rare sense of tangible dignity (instead of vaporous nostalgia like we’ve already seen too many times).

Rightfully, we have come to expect the best of Royston, and with this one there can be no excuses: he clearly wanted to live up to expectations. There is an abundance of gratifying detailwork in all the composition, and a lot more to discover for the discerning eye in 12 Lotus. Style and setting, the film’s outward décor, play an important part in giving the right key for the songs; they are vital assets in the most basic sense: Ah Hua furbishes a world to sustain her self and sense of dignity in, and the songs provide it. If any film among the barrage of features released around this time of year in Singapore, for its richness alone 12 Lotus deserves having a second look.

For one, there is the parallel story of Astroboy, Ah Hua’s faithful companion in the reality-defying cocoon her apartment has become after the shock of Ah Long’s betrayal. In the earlier part of the movie, when young, he cannot perform his song on stage under the pressure from his mum. However, when assured of himself in Ah Hua’s company, he overcomes his inner blockade and fear, to be free and able to face and entertain the crowd; from then on, he is marking out a career of his own, which eventually, inevitably, will lead to a delayed challenge for independence. Later, Ah Hua’s own return to Getai fails as it must, her non-performance echoing the disaster Astroboy once had to suffer; but in her mind we see: it is her brightest moment, her song among the best in vocal folk wisdom that 12 Lotus embodies.

And this is a recurring pattern, working and reverberating all through the body of the film, manifold, and providing a sound emotional resonance that is very believable. What at first sight could appear to be nothing but corroded emotions, feelings gone rusty from foul weather exposure, in fact, when viewed in the light shining forth from the song, turns out to be an amalgam: the inseparable union between love and pain, loss and memory keeping. Accordingly, it comes as a chilling re-visitation, ghostly you could call it, to hear Ah Hua repeat the very same lines her father scolded her by some 20 years back, when she breaks with Astroboy. Finally, she is disowning her companion in a nightmare or daydream, which at this point it has long since become impossible to tell apart; love and pain have become forever inexorably intertwined.

Likewise the cheat Long 2, Ah Long reincarnated, is uplifted in her company (just like Astroboy once was, remember?) and for a short while he dares to believe in his better self. The sheer fatalism in Ah Hua’s becoming aware at this point of their encounter that it is indeed not her lover come back for good, but some stranger (her sensing it beyond reason) – this one detail of profound truth is not just an astoundingly precise psychological observation, but an arch-figure of the human soul, and it tells a hundred tales.

Caught between the necessities of make-do and the need for make-believe (even if to one-self), most everyone in this movie seems to be artfully kept in an intermediary state of mind; and it is not only the victim’s deflection from this world that finds itself at odd angles with reality. So it was in the parting words, perhaps, the ambiguous farewell left to her by the true Ah Long as he made his exit from the scene of exploitation. Doubled, and fatefully addressing her again, they will come to acquire new levels of meaning. That is because even as the writing may just be on the mirror, this wall is no less impenetrable, for it is her own skin and self that she seeks to protect; and the delusion, when it finally wears off, sees someone dying for sure – if in the reflection of an image, or the soul-asylum provided by a song: here is a second exit.

12 Lotus is the ultimate musical drama. It is taking song as film and along with it to a new level of something as rare as a full hybrid; and that sure is challenging. As embodied in the lead Ah Hua’s first choice – the world through a looking-glass or contained in a song – all life is performance if you wish to dance with reality. Consistent with its form, like the flower that gives its title, the movie visually grows sui generis to lift a story out of muddy waters – it is an original achievement. Maybe the film’s biggest problem is in its lightweight precursor, melodramatic 881. 12 Lotus arguably is the more substantive, the more refined, it very simply is the better movie. Whether it meets expectations on every count, be they justified or overblown, that, however, is a different question.

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1 Comment

  1. 30 October 2008 at 8:23 pm

    Haven’t watch 12 Lotus yet… Many friends say it is lousy like f*** while a few say it’s really good. Will wait for the DVD release. But must say Mindee is looking good these days… Hee…

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