Film Review: ‘Number 1’ Represents a Strong Step Forward for the Destigmatisation of Drag Culture in Singapore
After many failed interviews, Chee Beng finally manages to secure a job as an assistant general manager at Number 1, a drag club. Chee Beng is forced to stand in as a crossdresser and surprisingly, he turns out to be so good that he eventually becomes the biggest star on the drag scene.
Director: Ong Kuo-Sin
Cast: Mark Lee, Kiwebaby Chang, Jaspers Lai, Henry Thia, Gina Tan, Cassandra See
Language: Mandarin, Hokkien
Runtime: 98 minutes
Amidst a mainstream media landscape where queer characters and themes are often insensitively treated, Number 1《男儿王》comes as a tremendous and heartening surprise. Those looking for deep-cutting, intimate dramas – an angle synonymous with queer cinema today – highlighting the stigma still faced by the queer community will invariably be disappointed.
The Golden Horse Awards nominated film looks to move the needle forward in its own way. Keeping in keen mind an older audience disconnected from queer culture, the film looks to dispel long-held stigmas by aptly relating the grace and tenacity of the drag world to the struggles of everyday Singaporeans.
Number 1 does this by starting off with a familiar circumstance: now in his 40s, retrenched civil engineer Chee Beng (Mark Lee) is unable to find another job with a paygrade able to support his family. His job hunt unexpectedly brings him to a drag club, which first takes him on as a manager for its performers before circumstances thrust him on stage to be part of the troupe.
Without losing its focus on drag culture nor completely shedding its upbeat tone, the film packs startling depth in its social commentary, reaching out to challenge gender roles and fundamentalism. These, however, are often delivered in short-hand. This leads to most side characters, including Chee Beng’s wife played by Gina Tan, being underdeveloped while carrying side plots that are left largely unresolved. Nevertheless, these characters still do a satisfactory job at being stand-ins for larger, familiar social issues.
This is, undoubtedly, the film’s biggest weakness, especially when its cast of queer characters comes dangerously close to only being used as a device to shore pity and empathy, with little to no defining characteristics between them. The lack of character development also contributes to abrupt beat and tonal shifts present throughout the film with characters turning around on their perspectives without clear reasons. It felt like a lot was left on the cutting room floor.
However, these faults may not lie entirely on the film’s part. Despite its tame and wholesome narrative, the film’s NC16 rating for “mature theme” hangs like a spectre. A deeper, more personal look at the lives of its queer cast might not have been possible without sacrificing a large part of the film’s audience.
If anything, Number 1 shows exactly how absurd the implications that come with the film’s rating are. Chee Beng is a character of relatable flaws, yet, at his core, he is a caring father and husband who keeps his retrenchment and new job a secret for the sake of his family. While his initial experiences with drag culture were intimidating, he never comes off as demeaning or condescending, emerging from the entire experience both as a better person and father. It’s a character arc filled with affecting moments that reinforces the family unit by challenging archaic traditions.
These create a film with an overall youthful and rebellious outlook that may not be inferred beforehand by its cast of beloved television veterans. The chemistry between long-time television colleagues Mark Lee and Henry Thia, who plays the easy-going and caring nightclub owner, is an easy winner, where a laugh or a mischievous jab is always around the corner. Actress Cassandra See, starring as an eccentric landlord, is a show-stealer with her quick wit and rambunctiousness. The film’s humour may be hit or miss but it is the energy of its cast that truly makes Number 1 enjoyable.
Amongst the drag quartet, the film’s main attention lies with Pearly, played by Taiwanese transgender actress Kiwebaby Chang. Unlike the rest of the quartet, her character is expressed through more than just their names or one-sentence qualities. Chang’s performance inserts much-needed grey into the plot, humanising the drag community through her faults and quiet strengths.
Despite the holes in character development, how Number 1 remains affecting – and even tear-jerking at times- is with the starring performance of Mark Lee. While the humour and passion he injects anchors the film’s light-hearted tone, there are also moments that demonstrate his dramatic range. One standout sequence sees him defend the quartet from verbal abuse. Lee delivers his lines and performances with such intensity and authenticity that audiences are hard-pressed not to root for Lee and his friends. It is showstopping moments like these – and there are a few throughout – that solidifies the film’s earnest heart and soul.
A film about drag would be incomplete without its musical sequences. Number 1 features a mix of Mandarin- and English-language classics, although its lack of variety will be sorely felt by the film’s second half. However, within its lineup are crowd-pleasing Hokkien language twists of drag classics that are humorous while remaining cordial and respectful, especially in its challenge of the lip-syncing tradition in drag performances.
As with his 2015 film Mr Unbelievable and television series Fried Rice Paradise, director Ong Kuo Sin brings an infectious energy to the film’s musical sequences. These exciting sequences are punctuated by the stunning costumes adorned by the performers.
The colourful world they call home is drastically contrasted with the drab mundane of the day, making Chee Beng’s overall experience seem as fantastical as the film suggests. This is furthered by a camera eye that, while uncomplicated, still casts the local landscape with a foreign-like feel, especially when there are hardly any visual indicators of the film being set in Singapore. Together with its wide-use of Hokkien and its Golden Horse Awards buzz, Number 1 may see itself as a hit overseas, particularly in Taiwan.
When a film about drag culture features cameos by Kumar and Abigail Chay, that might be as close as a local film could get to an affirmation by the community. If the screening I attended, in a half-theatre filled with an older generation laughing and emoting along, is any indication of the audiences the film will get, Number 1 has to be considered a substantial step forward – especially when the destigmatisation of drag culture isn’t even the film’s only focus.
The film definitely falters in how it doesn’t offer any deep, meaningful insights into the issues faced by the community and how it comes dangerously close in victimising them. Similarly, how plot threads are left unresolved or hand-waved away do feel frustrating. However, Number 1 more than makes up for its flaws for its graceful approach, the stunning leading performance of Mark Lee, and the film’s role in the larger media landscape.
Perhaps most emblematic of the film’s identity is with its Hokkien-language cover of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive and how it looks to be a bridge between the older local generation and queer culture. At the end of the day, everyone just looks to survive in a hostile world and it is exactly films such as Number 1 – not the hundredth arthouse sobfest – that makes it seem so silly why everyone hasn’t determined to be on the same page yet.
Catch the film’s trailer below:
Presented by MM2 Entertainment, Number 1 is now screening in theatres islandwide.
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