Interview: Ong Kuo Sin 王国燊, Director of Golden Horse Award-nominated Film ‘Number 1’《男儿王》
For Ong Kuo Sin 王国燊, director and scriptwriter of Golden Horse Award-nominated film Number 1 《男儿王》, his personal mission as a Singaporean filmmaker is to create films with identity and to care about what Singapore society should aspire towards.
It’s a vision that has resonated throughout his feature films. His feature debut, Judgement Day, looks to explore how Singaporeans would react to the end of the world, and, in the process, unearths conversations surrounding taboo topics such as transgender issues and police corruption. Ong’s follow-up Mr Unbelievable centres on a madly patriotic songwriter’s journey to become a symbol of national pride.
“For Number 1, I would still like to maintain this principle of telling a Singaporean perspective if we are going to shoot a local film for Singaporeans to watch,” Ong shared with Sinema.SG via a Zoom call during his quarantine in Taiwan earlier this month.
Since his return to Singapore from overseas studies in 1999, Ong has worked on several documentaries, variety programmes and television sitcoms, including directing for Koji Cooks and My Sassy Neighbour. He is currently the executive producer of Channel 5 series Kin, which was part of his workload during the 14 days quarantine.
His latest film, Number 1, sees retrenched civil engineer Chee Beng, played by Mark Lee, taking on the unorthodox job of performing in a drag club to support his family. Number 1 has garnered two nominations at this year’s Golden Horse Awards for Lee’s measured performance as the middle-aged father and the film’s spectacular array of dazzling costumes.
Ong, Lee, and co-scriptwriter and co-star Jaspers Lai will be in attendance at tomorrow’s Golden Horse Awards ceremony.
One key concern Ong looked to address with Number 1 was the gulf in perspectives seen throughout the world today, including in Singapore. He explained: “You have the extreme left where the ‘woke culture’ comes in and you have the extreme right where there is conservative reluctance to talk and even reluctance to [have discussions].”
“By making Number 1, we decided to take a very gentle step. Not to provoke, not to antagonise, but to suggest a conversation. Maybe this will be an easier way to start the conversation and to start the discourse that, I would say, Singapore has been sorely lacking in the last four to five years.”
Earlier this year, Lai shared with AsiaOne about the public backlash regarding the film’s inclusion of drag queens. Ong shared that this was expected yet that the team did still find it necessary to solider on.
He said: “I would love for all Singapore movies to have a message and to have a cultural contribution. If this movie is our way of trying to help society become a better one and if we are given this opportunity to make such a movie, why shouldn’t we try to give it our best shot?”
Ong re-emphasised that Number 1 did not look to antagonise anyone; the film’s main focus is in getting people to empathise. He added: “If everyone can have a little bit of tolerance, a little bit of patience to understand other people’s world, I think Singapore will be a much better place.”
Since the very beginning, while conceptualising the lead character of Chee Beng, Ong and Lai looked to approach the drag world through the perspective of a straight man. The decision for the film’s lead to be a middle-aged man, who would be faced with a multitude of daily struggles, came up while searching for ways to layer the character. In the film, Chee Beng juggles his roles as husband, father, and the sole breadwinner of the family, all while hiding the nature of his job from them.
Ong explained: “We always say that your character is kind of fixed after 35 or 36. [Chee Beng’s] sudden change in life would provide the audience with a greater shock to the system…where his daily challenges are more layered. Once he goes into this totally different world from his, the internal struggle will be even bigger with all these external responsibilities.”
With this decision, Ong and Lai looked to cast Lee in the role, recognising that he might be the key to attract a wider audience. Slight alterations were made to the character to fit Lee’s persona. Number 1 would not be the first time Ong has worked with Lee (“Let’s just say I have known him for too long.”), with the actor starring in his debut feature as well.
This time around, Ong shared that his approach for Lee’s performance was of “deconstructing Mark Lee as a performing talent” – an approach that the veteran actor was very open towards. “I did tell [Lee] that since this movie is going to be through the point-of-view of [a straight man], there will be a lot of close-ups for him to internalise what he is seeing, what he is feeling and that he will be the key to bring the audience through this process of growing to accept Chee Beng’s journey as believable.”
Ong added: “That was one thing we explored and I think Mark did a fabulous job in understanding this direction we were going for. Rather than overdoing it, there is a lot of very understated moments which I thought were brilliant.”
Another focus for Mark’s performance was the emphasis on Chee Beng’s quiet strength, with the deliberate decision for him to not shed any tears in front of his family despite the countless struggles and worries he faces. Ong added: “If the tear should be there, it should not drop for anyone to see.”
The casting of Taiwanese transgender actress Kiwebaby Chang for the role of prima donna Pearly was described by Ong as a “spark”. With the goal of making the film’s lead even more sympathetic, the team looked to “weaponise” the supporting character through an actor who could threaten Lee’s performance on screen.
However, the team could not find anyone able to fill the character’s heels even after a lengthy search. It was only through recommendations from colleagues and friends from Taiwan that they found out about Chang, who was selected for the role following a teleconference.
Director Ong was first introduced to the drag world by Lai, who did two years of research on the topic prior to approaching him. Together, they met with local drag queen Sammi Zhen, speaking with him to ask about the challenges he has faced, and watching him on stage to better understand the energy of drag performances.
Adding on to the research process, the film’s production designer, Abdul Samad Jaffar, also organised a research trip to similar spots in Bangkok for references on lighting, costume and performance level.
Despite the team’s efforts for a wider audience, the film was still rated NC16 for its “mature theme”. The team had aimed for a PG13 rating, avoiding any overt portrayal of its LGBT themes. Nonetheless, Ong reaffirms that the film is intended for the whole family to watch.
Number 1’s release and Golden Horse Awards nominations would be the culmination of a surreal two-years-long journey for the team. The film was completed in 2018 with plans for release in 2019. However, various obstacles such as a clash of scheduling would push the film to its eventual 2020 release.
Ong expressed: “We have seen to the end of the movie. Now it is in theatres and we have done our job. If in this very dire situation this movie can bring some laughter and some consolation to people then I think we have provided our audience with what we intended to do. [We also hope to] start a conversation about having more compassion, more tolerance, and more patience with people we don’t really understand.”
As for his future plans, Ong shared that he is not too sure himself: “To be very honest, the plan is to just survive for one more year. Let’s hope in 2021 after the [COVID-19] vaccine is found, we can resume our work as per normal.”
Catch the Golden Horse Awards this Saturday, 21 November, at 7pm.
– Film Review: ‘Number 1’ Represents a Strong Step Forward for the Destigmatisation of Drag Culture in Singapore
– Interview: Ko Chen-Nien 柯貞年, Director of ‘The Silent Forest’ 《無聲》
– A Priceless ‘Freedom’ – A Look at the 56th Golden Horse Awards