Dir. Royston Tan. Singapore / Japan, 2007. 105 min.
Oozing sweet smiles and made-up grimaces, a myriad of glittering colours, low-brow humour and an endless string of easily hummed tunes, 881 is already a major hit in Singapore. Despite the lack of any plot to speak of, Royston Tan's film is likely to be cherished by gay (in every sense of the word) audiences all over Asia, and probably not only there.
A strange item to come from a director with a reputation for minimalist, intimate dramas, considered at best arthouse fare, way outside any type of commercial territory.
It plays like an extended vaudeville act, with brief dramatic interludes whose only purpose is to lead into the next musical number - though sometimes they don't even do that.
The filmpretends to tell the story of the competition between the two cute and loveable Papaya Sisters (who aren't sisters but love each other more than real ones would) and the nasty, bitchy but bountiful Durian Sisters, for the supremacy on the Singapore 'getai' (musical stage) circuit.
Any attempt to take it seriously is doomed to fail for there isn't really anything to unearth behind the heavy make-up, the costumes, the feathers and the light effects which keep pouring out of the screen in abundance.
Working on the premise that more is better, Tan's picture doesn't skimp in any department.
Both Little Papaya (Mindee Ong) and Big Papaya (Yeo Yann-Yann) get to change their appearance about a dozen times in each and every one of their many musical numbers.
The Durian sisters (pop singing duo May & Choy) get the same treatment, only in a more aggressive, perverse manner, so the audience is left withno doubt who to root for and who to despise.
Needless to say,some may very well tire after a while of the goody-goody heroines and start rooting for the vicious antagonists but that's part of thecharm and the secret of its success.
Still, the Durians are not allowed any personality of their own, but the Papayas get some more miles of sympathy, the little one because she has breast cancer and only little time to live, the big one, because her mother, once a 'getai' performer herself, kicked her out, when the daughter refused tostay away from show business.
All this is supposed to be told by a deaf-mute (Qi Yu-wu) who is in love with both sisters, and drives them around from one show to another.
The comic relief is provided by his mother, Aunt Ling (singer and comedian Liu Ling-ling), a costumer who has vowed to make the Papayas the greatest of them all.
881 is performed with hammy enthusiasm by a whole gang of troupers who launch into their roles with relish and never shy away from anything over the top. It is reminiscent, if anything, of those marathonic Italian TV shows that apparently never fail to find a large audience.
After a while, even earnest minded critics will have to give up the tools of their trade, sit back and allow themselves to be swept over by the unpretentious fantasy, or else just get up and leave.
Allusions to the influence of Tsai Ming-Liang and his 'Wayward Clouds' may be inevitable, after all Tan's films have been close, in spirit, to those of the idiosyncratic Malaysian born Taiwanese filmmaker, but in this case, he is tamer and certainly not as blatantly provocative, a strictly expurgated version, if at all, of the same approach.
Daniel Low's camera effectively captures the kaleidoscopic invasion of the Singaporean glam extravaganza.
Moe Kassim's catchy costumes may not be the epitome of elegance, but they were never intended to be and themusical score will provide ample anciliary CD profits.
Editing blissfully prevents lingering on any flitting thought for more than a moment, as for the actors, they never sigh but cry and never smile but holler, which is just what that type of picture would expect them to do.
Media Development Authority of Singapore
Zhao Wei Films
Scorpio East Pictures
Be Wild (Japan)
Zhao Wei Films (Singaopre)
distribution (at home)
Chan Pui Yin
Seah Saw Yam
Tan Fong Cheng
Ang Hwee Sim
Low Hwee Ling
Eric Ng (director)
Funkie Monkeys Prod.
Poo Teong Chai
Liu Ling Ling
May & Choi