Royston Tan’s 2007 film 881 was a real knockout. Full of music, magic, and well-wrought melodrama, the film captured the hearts and minds of local audiences in Singapore, garnering award nominations and earning a pretty penny at the box office. Considering its critical and commercial success, it’s no surprise that Tan would be tempted to helm a follow-up. While not a direct sequel, 12 Lotus features much of the same cast, and is chock full of colorful costumes, dazzling musical performances, and plenty of melodrama. Unfortunately, it’s melodrama at its worst.
12 Lotus charts the life of Lian Hua, a young girl with big dreams, despite her humble beginnings. Inspired by a beautiful singer playing Guan Yin (pop star Stefanie Sun in a cameo), Lian Hua resolves to become a getai singer when she grows up. Getai is a popular form of entertainment held only during the Seventh Lunar Month in Singapore. During this Ghost Festival, there are stage performances in various suburbs where singers don wildly colorful costumes and sing classic Hokkien songs, all to entertain the spirits. Lian Hua’s favorite song happens to be “12 Lotus,” which chronicles in twelve verses the tragic tale of a girl’s life. As the film unfolds, we begin to see how that song loosely parallels Lian Hua’s own life, as the lyrics end up serving as the de facto plot structure for the film itself.
After a brief segment with Lian Hua as a child, 881 actress Mindee Ong steps into the role as we jump headfirst into her life as a young getai singer. Stifled and controlled by a drunken, gambling, good-for-nothing father (Huang Yi Liang), Lian Hua finds respite in the arms of a fellow getai crooner, Ah Long (Qi Yuwu, the mute “narrator” of 881). The two fall in love and eventually become a successful singing duo. Everything seems to be looking up for Lian Hua, but unfortunately, all is not what it seems, as Tan pours on the tragedy in a shocking, unexpected twist.
Cut to many years later, and we find that Lian Hua (now played by Liu Ling-Ling) is an overweight recluse who is more or less insane. Her only friend is the flamboyantly fey Xiao Fei Xia (Hao Hao), a former kid getai singer who has finally come bursting out of the closet. As fate would have it, Lian Hua encounters a man who is the spitting image of her former flame (Qi Yuwu again). The man is down on his luck and sees manipulating the deranged woman as a way out of his dire financial straits. In Lian Hua’s eyes, her former lover has returned, and she’ll do anything to protect him. Predictably, things go from horribly bad to incommensurably worse in a circular ending that I can only describe as hellish for both Lian Hua and the viewer.
Both in comparison to 881 and on its own terms, 12 Lotus is a major disappointment. The film’s budget seems to have primarily gone into the admittedly dazzling musical numbers, but all that singing and dancing can’t make up for a lackluster script. Nor can it override just how bad the melodrama is.
The first half of the film is the stronger section, as we follow Lian Hua as she tries to overcome personal and professional setbacks to achieve her own measure of success. After all, becoming a successful getai singer isn’t quite as profitable as becoming a top-40 recording artist. Mindee Ong shines in this early segment, and her chemistry with Qi Yuwu is palpable. Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to not only deliver a gut-punch to both its protagonist and its audience, but then fast-forward the narrative into the future and ask us to identify with a totally different actress in the role who doesn’t bear the least resemblance to Mindee Ong.
Certainly, this dissonance can be explained due to a traumatic event in the story and Singaporean audiences' familiarity with Liu Ling-Ling, but this narrative jolt simply doesn’t work onscreen, as the sequences that make up the latter half of the film are mostly unbearable to watch. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with Liu’s acting, but for viewers to be asked to not only watch, but occasionally laugh at (not with, mind you, but at) a mentally unstable woman for the rest of the film’s overlong running time is a grueling and somewhat insulting proposition.
Of course, the film need not have tacked on a happy ending to garner my approval. 881 ends in tragedy, but it’s a bittersweet film that affirms the power of friendship, love, and hope in the face of heartbreaking circumstances. I’m not saying that 12 Lotus should have been a carbon copy of its predecessor, but I’m still at a loss to understand why the audience was forced to suffer through Lian Hua’s torturous existence. If all this tragedy was meant to elicit tears, then the filmmakers failed, as I found it only brought on feelings of pity and disgust. To put it bluntly, sitting through 12 Lotus is tantamount to watching a puppy getting kicked for two hours straight. I don’t think any amount of singing and dancing – no matter how well-choreographed or performed – can make up for something like that. (Calvin McMillin 2009)