Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Tragic-comic Campiness

Royston Tan has got a smart deal going on, to differentiate himself from other filmmakers. He makes films with only numbers in their titles. The significance of this, other than the fact that he'll never run out of titles due to the infinite possible combinations, is that our lives are deeply entrenched in numbers. Think about it. The moment we're born, we're given a birth certificate number, then we're given an identity card with numbers, up until the end, when the final number in a person's life finally denotes that they've become another statistic.

This is a fact that's both funny and sad. They are traits I'd also use to describe Tan's getai musical dramedy, 881.

Here's a very, very strange film. It takes off on a fast pace, putting us on a quick drill of the lives of the Papaya Sisters, the singing duo destined for getai greatness. This pace never lets up until we're introduced to the rest of the cast, treated to spitfire Hokkien repartee. The comedy bits may be a tad troublesome because they don't really apply to anyone outside of Singapore or unfamiliar with the Hokkien dialect. This is both the advantage and disadvantage of Singaporean Hokkien comedy. Because of its self-reflexive nature, it draws the laughs mostly from familiarity, of the mannerisms and slang.

Then come the musical bits with the songs and the lavish, deliberately overdesigned costumes. It's at this point that a certain quiet sadness starts to creep in, and despite all the comedy and camp, it's a very palpable sadness throughout that threatens to spill over into total despair but never does. The characters, despite the fun and funny situations they're surrounded in, have troubled pasts and identify with each other by their shared circumstances. This certainly parallels the nature of getai performances, that underneath all that glitzy, campy costumes and smiling performances are songs about tragedy, anguish and pain. The getai circuit itself is about death and loss, being in the seventh lunar month of the hungry ghosts festival.

The situation is definitely ripe for an exploration into why there is so much tragedy in the culture's songs and stories. TV serials, movies, classic novels - most times, they're about death, loss, grief and other matters on the melancholy side of the human heart. But Tan doesn't delve into the whys and hows; rather, he fashions a story about finding family wherever possible when the real ties have all but been severed. It makes for a slightly moving denouement, but one that is unnecessarily long drawn-out that it loses some of its impact.

In the end, it's the songs and the fact that it's the first Singaporean film about the getai culture that made this film the biggest hit in Singapore to date. Ultimately, 881 isn't a great film, but undeniably, it does have its charms. And it's the songs that make it memorable, and that's how musicals should be.

This is a review of the Singaporean edition DVD. There are no English subtitles for the extras on the disc. A Malaysian edition is also available with the same extras, but I don't have the details on subtitles.

Correction: Apparently 881 is only the biggest hit in Singapore for 2007. It still loses out to Jack Neo's Money No Enough, which is still the highest-grossing local film in Singapore. Thanks to the Nutshell Reviewer for clearing that up.

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