881: The Papaya Sisters, directed by Royston Tan, is the first Singaporean film I've actually paid to see in the theaters! (I watched most of Jack Neo's stuff at home)
I have long heard of Royston Tan's exploits: his controversial films, his numerous awards, being named as one of the Top 20 Asia's Heroes in TIMEasia Magazine etc. BUT I've never seen a single film by him before. I'll probably check out his famous short film 'CUT' on Youtube later (which makes fun of the Singapore censorship board).
Anyway, 881: The Papaya Sisters is about the Singapore 'getai' scene. 'Getai' or song stage (literal Chinese translation) are makeshift concerts held every year during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, in a period of time known to many as the 'Ghost Festival'. These performances are meant to entertain the departed souls.
I've never really attended a single one, but there had always been a 'getai' held near my house, either in front of the market, or at the park, and even in the distance, while I'm at home, I could still hear the performances. My mom, once a singer, told me that she had performed at numerous 'getai' too, during her singing days.
Royston Tan probably had fonder memories of the 'getai', since 881: The Papaya Sisters is more or less a love letter to the scene. All these are most apparent during the (occasionally poetic and affecting) voiceover narration from Qi Yuwu's mute narrator (the voiceover narrations were done by Royston Tan himself) However, instead of being a realistic portrayal of the Getai scene, 881 is a sleek and colourful musical with lots of 'WTF???????'-inducing fantastical elements.
Film revolves around two best friends, Little Papaya (Mindee Ong), who is battling her terminal illness, is in a 'getai' singing duo with Big Papaya (Malaysian-born, Singapore-based Yeo Yann Yann... no relation to me). Little Papaya wants what possibly could be her last getai to end with a bang, but their archrivals, the dastardly Durian Sisters (played by hottie Malaysian VJ twins Cheng May Wan and Cheng Choy Wan, known more as May And Choy) are threatening to ruin everything to gain getai superstardom and dominance!
Of course, the rivalry between the Papaya sisters and the Durian sisters aren't really that intense, they just seem like a rivalry you see in cartoons, since the two villainesses are really more comical than malicious, especially when they (the Durian sisters) butcher their Mandarin lines. (One review mentioned that the Durian sisters represent the increasingly westernized culture of Singapore, whilst the Papaya sisters represent Singapore's traditional values and the like. And that's exactly what they are. The Durian sisters' getai performances are cringe-inducingly... er, 'techno'.)
The film is beautiful to look at it, in fact, it's comparable to the finest-looking big-budget Asian films out there (Korean, Hong Kong, Japan or Mainland China etc.) Good production values, cinematography and art direction. There are some flashy showoffy filmmaking in display as well, like numerous Tsai Ming-Liangish long-takes. Royston Tan may be working with a big budget (S$1 million plus), but he definitely wants to retain his, ah, indie cred, I guess.
Right now, 881 had became a major hit in Singapore, making more than S$3 million in the box-office and still counting (based on Royston's blog), so I assume many love the film for its nostalgic value. After doing some researching, I also realized that many getai singers had appeared in the film as themselves, and the film also pays tribute to the late getai songwriting legend Chen Jing Lang, as the film includes footages and events leading up to his death (he died of colon cancer last year).
So, this film probably works well for Singaporeans who are well aware of the getai scene, than an outsider like me. I am so oblivious to the getai scene that I didn't even know that Chen Jing Lang was a real-life figure when his death was alluded sadly in the film, I was confused then why the protagonists made such a big fuss about his death when 'the relationship between the Papaya Sisters and Chen were never developed clearly'.
I found myself scratching my head numerous times. The pacing was an issue for me. While I could enjoy some of the musical sequences, since some, especially the climatic 'singing duel' between the Papaya and Durian sisters are well-choreographed, but some others... well, they just aren't that well choreographed. And as much as I liked some of the voiceovers, I wasn't really too drawn into the two main characters. The two lead actresses are rather pretty (... and VERY SKINNY!), and their acting during the dramatic scenes are undeniably good, I just don't feel that interested in seeing what happens to them. Somehow, I felt that they have disappeared underneath the glitz and glamour of the film. Or perhaps it's just weak characterization, or lack of screen presence, not sure. Could be a bit of both.
Film felt long, maybe it really was. Sometimes, I was amused, sometimes I felt admiration, sometimes, I felt bored, sometimes, I merely seemed befuddled. But towards the end, I felt sheer agony.
The film ended too long after the climax. A long drawn-out hospital death scene might have probably been an ultimate tearjerker for many... I almost wept too, but from agony, since I desperately... DESPERATELY wanted to head off to the toilet then!
Ah well, guess I don't really belong to the target audience. May and Choy are pretty though.
Seems that many 881 videos are uploaded on Youtube too.
Yearning (... I think that's the song title?)
Replacement - Lin Qi Yu
One Half (tis' the title track of the film, I think