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In just 22 days, Royston Tan created 881, the Singaporean getai musical that will leave you speechless and oddly appreciative of sensory overload.
In his extravagant theatrical tribute to the Singapore getai scene, director Royston Tan takes very little time before unabashedly hurling his audience headfirst into the inspired madness of 881. The narrative playfully begins in a speedy staccato, force-feeding us the back stories of its two leading ladies with grand, deliberate strokes. Big Papaya (Yeo Yann Yann) was left father-less at an early age, leaving her with an unsupportive mother and a rotating rolodex of stepfathers she's not particularly close to. Her best friend, Little Papaya (Mindee Ong), is an orphan with a terminal illness. Bonded by their dream of being getai song-and-dance performers, the girls find a manager/guardian in the loud-mouthed Aunt Ling (popular Singaporean getai emcee Liu Ling Ling), who is determined to help them jumpstart their careers -- even if it means putting her pride aside to beg her estranged twin sister, the Goddess of Getai, for help.
"Do you love singing more than yourself, more than any man, more than life itself?" the Goddess of Getai barks at the girls. Yes, yes, and yes! -- and the Papaya sisters' wishes are granted. Aunt Ling's son, Guan Yin (Qi Yu Wu), a doe-eyed deaf-mute boy with an endearing attachment to his pet rooster, completes this makeshift family, creating a living situation that would be much simpler if he weren't constantly being teased by his mother, wanting to know which of the beautiful Papaya sisters he prefers.
By the time we get to a rehearsal scene where the foursome is dancing around in cardboard box costumes with egg crates for wings, the hope is that the audience has been charmed into that magical intersection between the real and the unreal, so that they're prepared for what is to follow. Because what is to follow involves an all-consuming flood of sequins, beads, bangles, glitter, crowns, boas, lace, silk, jewelry, and feathers. Lots and lots of feathers.
Getai (literally "a song stage") is traditionally performed in Singapore during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar year, when it is believed that the spirits of the dead return to roam amongst the living. 881 not only has cameos of real-life getai singers -- Wang Lei, Karen Lim, and Lin Ru Pin, in addition to the scene-stealing Liu -- but the film also includes 18 songs written by the late Chen Jin Lang, a Singapore getai legend who died of colon cancer shortly before the production began. Written into the script, Chen Jin Lang is the idol of both Big Papaya and Little Papaya, and their distraught reactions to TV reports of his untimely death serve as a turning point in the story.
While at times, 881 has the heightened feel of an epic melodrama, the film does provide touching moments of stillness to balance the frenzy of the performances. The otherwise-mute Guan Yin provides the voiceover narration, often contemplating why the Papaya sisters, able to be so loud and boisterous on stage, are so achingly silent in life. The relationship between the two Papaya girls and Guan Yin could have easily become a clichéd love triangle, but in the hands of Royston Tan, this story prizes friendship, respect, and loyalty over any petty competition over a cute boy. So tightly-knit the three are in their camaraderie that frequently words aren't necessary in their communication; a brief gesture or passing glance speaks volumes.
The Papaya sisters' singing career is always the bigger issue at stake. The earnest Guan Yin, who diligently chauffeurs the girls around from show to show, takes this role as seriously as a race car driver would. "When you have no dreams, you dream for others," he muses. Aunt Ling also throws herself into their training and hand-sews all of their elaborate costumes. A whimsical running metaphor throughout the film is that Aunt Ling is the sun, Big Papaya is a star, and Little Papaya is the moon. Aunt Ling also calls herself the roots to the girls' leaves. Together they all serve the same purpose, and they look out for each other.
Although much of the dramatic tension of the story involves Little Papaya's battle against time as her health starts to deteriorate, there is an entertaining subplot involving a rival getai girl duo called The Durian Sisters (played by MTV VJ twins, May and Choy). The Durians start to steal the Papayas' shows, and this foul play leads to an inevitable showdown between named-after-fruit girl groups. And of course, the loser has to give up getai forever!
Interestingly, as conveyed by the film, the "evil" Durian Sisters resort to cheap politicking -- campaigning atop a gaudy float and passing out fliers to the gullible masses -- while the "good" Papaya girls hole themselves in their house and concentrate on rehearsing, relying on the goodwill of their devoted community for support. The Durian Sisters' show provokes, with their revealing pop-inspired outfits, including conical bras and vampy black pleather skirts that are strangely reminiscent of Madonna or perhaps obscure Britney Spears videos. In contrast, the Papaya sisters' act remains lyrically chaste while celebrating international cultures: their numerous costume changes takes the audience on a tour of the world, with clothing inspired from Egyptian, Japanese, Native American, Indian, and Spanish influences. And of course, the marathon concert ends with the Papayas' version of the Chinese lion dance (bright yellow everywhere) as its larger-than-life finale.
The idea for a film about getai emerged when Tan was making a joke at the expense of the Singapore Tourism Board and their slogan: "Uniquely Singapore: Discover a world of unique contrasts." In his decade-long career as a filmmaker, Tan has become famous for subverting ideas of what is "Singaporean," be it by speaking out for freedom of expression (his previous musical foray, 2004's short film Cut, lampooned the Singaporean censorship board for their choices of what is appropriate for audiences) or just by refusing to be typecast in his own work (some consider 881 Tan's unlikely crossover from art-fare into the mainstream).
Ironically, it was this joke that has turned Royston Tan from former enfant terrible into Singapore's spotlight media darling. Released in late 2007, 881 was chosen as Singapore's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the Academy Awards, and the critically-acclaimed musical also became a huge commercial success, surpassing S$3.5 million in national box office sales.
Even Tan himself expressed surprise at the film's popularity with the younger Singaporean demographic, who might have been expected to regard getai as outdated kitsch, especially since most of the songs are in Hokkien, the Fujian dialect that seems to be gradually disappearing in favor of English and Mandarin. Because 881 rejoices in the glitz, the crudeness, and the spectacle of it all, somehow Royston Tan has not only made retaining Singaporean culture cool, but he's provided a vehicle (and two soundtracks) that may bridge the gap between generations and give Singaporean film further international exposure.
Date Posted: 1/25/2008