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Review: 881

28 February 2008

Review: 881

881” is Royston Tan’s latest feature film, as of course you will have heard by now. An all-singing, all-dancing carnival with a substantial dip into melodrama, this one doesn’t come as much of a surprise for anyone roughly familiar with the work of Singapore’s No.1 auteur of the day.

881-01.jpgFrom the early beginnings and his first music videos, all the way to short films such as “Hock Hiap Leong”, the fabulous “Cut” and, most recently, “DIY”, he has given repeated and eloquent testimony to his genuine knack and natural feel for music. Time and again he’s demonstrated how songs can take over the lead in a film, obliterating any further plot lines and visually becoming the thing in itself.

And to state the obvious right away, this opening comes with the pronounced confident recommendation to tune in to this musical film if solely for the exquisite Getai songs that must be counted as its first and most striking distinction, whatever else you may think of the film proper. The Hokkien song film score including songs by (and as a tribute to) late singer Chen Jin Lang is fantastic, and any serious review could comfortably end here without fear of having cheated you of the best. In fact it is just so strong and memorable by itself that buying the soundtrack will be mandatory to many viewers; as indeed it has been, the disc flying off the shelves in huge quantities all the way to a temporary sellout, so I’ve been told.

But one has to remember: Royston is in no way stuck in some early stardom circle of self-repetition here, he’s done other things as well, and splendidly too. Although “15: The Movie” and “4:30″ both contained strong musical elements, they each feature a distinctly different artistic agenda. While the latter is relishing in the delicate scrutiny of a minimal encounter, the former is overtly expressive in making a (lost) case. With 881 it seems, Royston Tan is building a record of diversity — and there is an almost sardonic completeness to the very attempt.

Thus, this latest needs to be taken seriously, and it will stand the test, partially. There undoubtedly is a lot of authenticity in 881, quite a helping of that quality which is the hallmark of ingenuity: that it appears without authority like a rare flower growing into full bloom right from the midst of some inconspicuous underbrush. And what a strong and colourful shoot it is! The full spectacle of Singapore’s seventh lunar month festivity is being unleashed to its glorious best. Though, for all that’s happening within 881’s many bursting frames, when summed up in words it is astonishingly little, the layout epideictic rather than epic.

You probably know the story 881 tells of the fierce rivalry and eventual knockout battle of Getai girl groups Papaya Sisters versus the cheesily mean-spirited Durian Sisters. Banding together in the face of adversity, the two Papayas are completed to the comforting circle of a makeshift family born of necessity. The orphaned girls and auntie Ling, plus her mute son Guan Yin with his domestic white play-cock, seek and find (among other things) the support of the Getai Goddess and henceforth are protected and assisted by her magic feathers to stand out in this competitive circuit of live stage performances. But life’s always cruel and so, as we’re told from the start, tender Little Papaya in the end is set to be dying away as she must from cancer — the final battle neither won, nor entirely lost.

This, however, is the film’s core weakness, that it gives tragedy — but in too well tempered tones; and to a popular melody at that. Don’t get me wrong, it is not simplicity at fault here, but predictability. When you recall that dark luminosity generated in “Sons”, “15: the Movie” and in “4:30″, so irritatingly powerful was these films’ existential encounter with melancholia, that it acquired a piercing quality almost tangible; you can’t help but sense a lack of this kind of inner-soul directness and urgency in 881.

And then there are little vignettes or story-telling detours intermixed with this Chinese soul-land cruise that takes you from song to song, which again do not add up to any real story drive. These mock-drama incidents, like Guan Yin’s half-hearted attempt at robbery for instance, they are superfluous and seem like fillers. Yet there is also an occasional appendage of gripping fictionalization like an overture to something possibly larger, or deeper — but these remain mere rudiments. There is no real effort at developing them, which is all the more unfortunate for they do show profound potential, particularly where the emotional flipside to artistic passion is being touched upon; little perpendicular spikes to the narrative plain that could open up like windows to a grown-up humanity, saturated with experience — but not in this film.

As for the acting, which with any given subject matter has to make for the human dimension in every picture, Liu Ling Ling is fabulous and nothing more needs to be said: she lives her double role of Aunt Ling/Goddess of Getai to the full extent of a heart and soul. But while Mindee Ong as Little Papaya gives a life-sized, solid performance as well, Yeo Yann Yann on the other hand doesn’t succeed to fully convince in her role as Big Papaya, but seems at times a bit confused about the emotional grounding of her part and how to assort her lines with inner coherence, which need not be her own fault necessarily. So take it as a treat of quite a bit of stereotypical melodrama (topped off by that wholly redundant part Qi Yuwu has to “play”), it still is truly enjoyable. Like I’ve said before, the whole film by no small measure teeters on the brink of silliness, alright, and what’s wrong with that? You don’t want to become as notoriously ill-humoured as Germans (allegedly) are, do you?

Back to reviewing: Is it a failure, then? Well no, it isn’t and I will try to find out why 881 works as a convincing piece of genuine cinema entertainment — despite its flaws. What we have come to expect of a new Royston Tan movie, after the somewhat opaque beauty of “4:30″ and that notorious dapper disarray of “15″ and its aftermath, certainly wasn’t little. And with 881 it turns out to be very much the difficult third album indeed. Yes, it undeniably is your tearjerker “let’s-do-this-before-I-die” routine, which once again proves itself too plain a formula to do real life any justice. But this thread-bare approach to story-stitching is actually more of a setting than it is the thing itself. I figure it hard to imagine anyone but the most soft-hearted among movie-goers who will sit through multiple screenings of 881 based on its plot attraction alone. There simply isn’t enough originality momentum in it to carry thus far; which to my understanding isn’t what this film is all about.

It is in essence a movie telling us of a very special, a unique way of being lightweight — which isn’t without its own profundity. You watch it for all its non-calculating self-indulgence and you’ll invariably get lots of fun out of this one. The sheer amount of love it garnered from its Singapore home crowds — it was an exit-taking kind of cinema experience, pure and simple. With the city state’s crowdedness an almost constant spoiler in so many things, there is actually quite a bit of common sense in this, don’t you think? Films like “Moulin Rouge”, “Perhaps Love” and, most recently, “Sakuran” — we’ve seen this before, so why tell the same story all over again? Because there is an authentic emotional need, a need to positively come into one’s own and fully, because we all must, that’s why! 881 is a defining piece of film for exactly this reason: answering to a want that’s been uncomforted for too long a time it seems, when taking into account the overwhelming local reception of this film. Some of it may actually be due to the fact of its telling in mostly Hokkien, close to every-day dialogue, which gives it a lot of deserved credibility with home audiences.

And then, all of this is actually brilliantly fashioned in 881. Lavish and reportedly quite costly sets and numerous costumes account for its deliberate foregrounding effectiveness. Specific colour grading and indirect lighting are by now recurring aspects of a scenic crafting that is recognizably Royston and geared to creating a finely tuned emotional setting, which in itself displays a remarkably wide range of imagery composition. The high HD production standard is evident throughout the film, it is visually rounded and has an appeal all its own — plus, it has something more. Just as much as tackiness, 881 cherishes life, and when it comes to being original and kinetic in editing and in matching music to visuals this director knows how to deliver; this is about to become a true trademark of his personal style.

Royston Tan by now is spearheading the Singapore Cinema Renaissance, which this time around is bound to last. The industry’s set of conditions has changed since the early and mid-nineties, significantly and structurally so, and there’s every reason to be optimistic about the prospects for local productions in Singapore. True, “15: the Movie” and “4:30″, they are both better and more important films than 881. Saying that, however, doesn’t take anything away from its own merits, its profound entertaining quality and flawless art direction. You’ll feel refreshed, watching this movie, you won’t be depressed. You’ll be inspired to be positive in your outlook on life, in general — and maybe even on a personal level. In our restless times, where apparently no serious enjoyment comes without a drug-like quality, and addictions to pastimes such as shopping, food, workouts or fashion, have acquired a surrogate value in the engulfing void of our modern day’s maniacal lifestyle obsession, a musical film such as 881 manages to bring us a cheerful antidote to consumerist boredom.

Here you have a reason to be grateful for such a gently comforting treat, as 881 in its seemingly lightweight extravaganza will work the charms and wonders of any coral reef’s underwater paradise on your strained nervous system, that’s my prediction. Therefore, spare yourself (and your therapist) your next session’s repeated tedium and watch this pearl of a film instead! Watch it, and let yourself be transported into the retrieved heart of your own life, be encouraged to live with a passion and renewed spirits.

Clearly this thing isn’t over yet, and maybe as a film project, 881 could over time become something like what “Star Wars” meant for Hollywood? Well, 30 years from now we’ll probably know the answer to that one. Be that as it may, one thing is for certain: There’s nothing enigmatic about 881, and that’s actually good. I’d put it this way: by watching this film, you’ll be for once reconciled to your sentimental mood. After all, what you will see is probably not much, if just the very delicate and (certainly in a place like Singapore!) rather precious performance of — snow…

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