Delightful Campy Fun, ‘881’ is A Hearty Celebration of a beloved Seventh Month Tradition
Two girls, one dream. Little Papaya and Big Papaya grow up idolizing Chen Jin Lang, the King of Hokkien Getai, and dream of becoming Getai singers themselves. Their heart wrenching story is related by their introspective but highly sensitive friend and driver, Guan Yin.
Director: Royston Tan
Cast: Mindee Ong, Yeo Yann Yann, Qi Yuwu, Ling-Ling Liu
Language: Mandarin, Hokkien
Runtime: 135 minutes
In a time before COVID-19, Ghost Festivals were usually accompanied by joss sticks nestled in the grass and large Getai (‘song stage’) performances in almost every neighbourhood. For those feeling nostalgic, 881 is the perfect solution. A fun, campy movie that truly embodies all the glitz, glamour and charm of Getai.
As Royston Tan’s third feature film, 881 saw great success. Initially drawing good reviews from critics upon release. In its 2007 release, it became the top grossing Asian film in Singapore, grossing over S$3 million. The film was then screened in film festivals across Asia, including the Busan international film festival in South Korea and the 2007 World FIlm Festival of Bangkok.
In 881, Little Papaya (Mindee Ong) and Big Papaya (Yeo Yann Yann) meet and become fast friends, sharing the dream of becoming the biggest Getai stars in the country. The pair then visit the ‘Fairy of the Geta’ (Ling-Ling Liu) who grants their wish – at a cost – and soon the Papaya sisters are whisked into pseudo-stardom.
Central to the plot is the conflict that arises between rival Getai duos the Papaya sisters and the Durian sisters. Tensions are on a high as the two groups try to push each other out of the Getai scene. This eventually culminates in a huge battle royale sing off with dire consequences for the losers.
And again, 881 is very campy. You may have come across the term. ‘Campy’ is almost synonymous with bad, but camp is actually an aesthetic. It prides itself on being deliberately over the top and ‘so bad it’s good’. At its core, camp’s only goal is to elicit laughter as a response.
881‘s core aesthetic is pop camp, from the plot down to the editing. Pop camp is the mainstream appropriation of camp, appealing to a wider audience by portraying less challenging concepts. The film playfully explores and exaggerates Getai, employing magical realism to create a truly unique watch.
From its opening, 881 doesn’t ease you into camp, instead leaning hard on the aesthetic. We are told of the lives of Little Papaya and Big Papaya through narration as seemingly unrelated events occur on screen. When we meet the two characters, we get the ‘flag raising scene’, which earns a chuckle, both through its ironic narration and cheesy looking shots. Subsequently we are told of tragedy, which due to the way it is shot, may garner laughter instead.
This same tone and its reliance on camp is a key part of the film’s overall entertainment, apparent in how it dramatises the events of Getai and the central rivalry through stylistic shots and edits. With wacky green screen moments and magical wish-granting fairies and people shooting lasers (out their boobs), hilarity and laughter definitely ensue.
The costuming of 881 is a marvel. Reminiscent of Cher (arguably the queen of the aesthetic style) the costumes have all of its delectable elements, from sparkles to glitter and even feathers. The costuming visually adds to the narrative and is one of the strongest aspects of the film.
The film, however, juxtaposes the campy comedy with the tragedy, opting not to lean into camp for this. The tragedy aspect tries to be grounded so as to not be over the top but unfortunately comes off heavy-handed on the melodrama.
Visual cues such as darker colour gradings and downplayed vibrancies also take audiences out of the moment and signal when they are trying to be serious. This comes off as jarring and doesn’t gel perfectly with the story.
Despite that, as a plot device, the darker themes bring us to the reality that Getai essentially is a celebration of those who have passed, injecting a real-world honesty into the film. Performance wise, Yann Yann shines as Big Papaya, displaying an impressive acting range and effortlessly making audiences empathise with her plight as a guilt-ridden friend.
Overall, 881 is a nostalgic trip down memory lane. What it lacks in narrative strength it makes up for with fun and campiness. 881 uses pop camp in the best way, making audiences laugh while being swept away by the stellar and hilarious visuals.
The film is clear in what it is and what it wants: a campy exploration of a cherished national pastime and a fun exciting visual romp designed to make audiences laugh. And it is perhaps in these glum yet absurd times where a little more camp might be just what we need to keep us going.
881 is now available for streaming on Netflix.
Catch the trailer below:
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