In past reviews, I’ve chastised filmmakers who’ve attempted to create films that were wildly atonal – for instance, a film that began as a serious drama, then morphed into a lowbrow comedy, and finally settled into a full-blown sci-fi epic. This is a purely hypothetical example, but it’s not too far afield from some of the tone deaf cinematic mishmashes I’ve had to suffer through in the past. To be clear, my objection isn’t about intent – that is, it’s not as if I believe that genres should never be mixed. Look closely at any “genre film,” and you’ll come to find that all genres are hybrids, taking a little from one genre and a smidge or two from some others to create something “new.”
So what I’m really criticizing is how some filmmakers fail to synthesize those otherwise disparate elements into a cohesive whole. This sort of synthesis can be achieved through wonderfully-drawn characters, great performances, a crackerjack plot, and/or the plain ol’ power of good cinema. A quality film can make you laugh, bring you to tears, and thrill you at every turn, but the tonal shifts – no matter how dramatic – should never take an audience completely out of the viewing experience.
And with Royston Tan’s 881, a Singaporean musical-comedy-drama that utilizes Hokkien wordplay, tearjerking melodrama, silly comedy, and plenty of other tricks to weave its tale of two aspiring local singers, the danger of losing an audience is rather high. And yet, every piece fits together, creating not just a rollicking piece of pure entertainment, but probably one of the best movies to come out of Singapore in the last ten years.
The story kicks off with voiceover narration courtesy of Guan Yin (Qi Wu Yu), a wifebeater-clad local boy who likes to carry his pet chicken around everywhere he goes. There’s something even more noteworthy about Guan Yin than his chicken pal – our narrator is, irony of ironies, also a mute. Through what can only be a mental voiceover, he introduces us to the film’s heroines, two Singaporean girls with big dreams about singing onstage. The two couldn’t be more different – while Big Papaya (Yeo Yann Yann) comes from a middle class family and graduated at the top of her class, Little Papaya (Mindee Ong) is a cancer-stricken orphan who works a thankless job as a vendor at the local street market. The one thing these two girls do have in common is the shared dream of becoming Getai singers.
Getai is a popular form of entertainment held only during the Seventh Lunar Month. 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. With that in mind, you can quickly see that the Papaya girls’ dream is a meager one by most movie standards. It’s not about gaining fame or fortune, but about art, pageantry, and entertainment. These women are two halves of one whole, a trope that will resonate throughout the picture.
Although coached by the zaftig Auntie Ling (Liu Ling Ling), the Papaya “sisters” aren’t quite the best performers. In fact, after an informal audition, several Getai performers inform them in no uncertain terms that their act is an absolute trainwreck. The veterans tell the girls that they lack what Edward James Olmos called “ganas” way back in Stand and Deliver (1988), but what is more colloquially referred to in English here as “feel.” Whatever “it” is, these girls don’t have it.
Thankfully for them Auntie Ling is able to call in a favor from her estranged sister known only as the Goddess of Getai (Liu Ling Ling in a dual role). Now “goddess” isn’t so much a fan-bequeathed nickname as it is a literal reality: the Goddess of Getai is actually a full-blown deity with CGI-enhanced magical powers to boot. The girls beg for help, and she eventually grants them their wish, but not before giving them a stern warning. She tells the Papayas that there are five important rules they need to adhere to in order for the charm to last. The first four are pretty basic, but rule number five is a little more demanding – “stay pure, no man love.” For two young women in their prime like the Papayas, that’s got to be one hell of a bummer.
With these heaven-sent powers at their disposal, the girls make the rounds of the Getai concert circuit. It’s not a lucrative business by any means, but their beautiful singing voices, pretty looks, and can-do work ethic make them the proverbial belles of the ball. Things are going great until a tragic death of a famous singer rocks the Getai world, and the girls find themselves taking stock of their lives. Little Papaya sees her own mortality in her idol’s death, while Big Papaya deals with her partner’s illness, her mother’s disownment over her career choice, and her burgeoning feelings for Guan Yin.
To make matters worse, there’s a new identical twin sister act hitting the Getai scene that would like more than anything than to steal the Papayas’ thunder. Calling themselves the Durian Sisters, these nasty chicks lack the vocal skills of the Papayas and rely on lip-syncing, but through the help of a chubby Sugar Daddy, they’re able to land various gigs and squeeze the Papayas out. Like a classic Western, a showdown is inevitable. But will Little Papaya live to see things through to the end? If you paid close attention in the first ten minutes of the movie, you might have a sense of what might occur, but you might be a little surprised at the outcome.
In the opening salvo of this review, I wrote at length about films with bad tonal shifts. 881 changes its tone frequently – so much so that it might initially throw off a non-Singaporean viewer. But ultimately, these shifts never sink the film. For instance, the movie starts out with Guan Yin, a character strongly reminiscent of Takeshi Kaneshiro’s in Fallen Angels. The heavy usage of voiceover narration – as well as the accompanying onscreen images – seems to be at once an emulation and a parody of one of Wong Kar-Wai’s cinematic hallmarks. The film then shifts into some low comedy involving vigorous Hokkien wordplay, before shifting gears once more with the outrageous fantasy of a goddess with superpowers. And yet it’s all held together by the emotional through line of its two heroines.
The film is a visual feast, full of colorful costumes, fancy effects, and outrageous pageantry, but it would all be for naught without an engaging plot (not to mention solid performances from its lead and supporting actors – Mindee Ong in particular). The characters in 881 don’t just have issues; they’ve got an entire subscription. When her “secret” Getai performances become front page news, Big Papaya finds herself kicked to the curb by her strongly disapproving mother, a woman who just might have some secrets of her own. Little Papaya’s health is deteriorating rapidly, so much so that she tries to keep it a secret from her loved ones. Guan Yin can’t say a single word, but in many respects, he’s the character who’s got the most to say – in particular, about his feelings for both Papaya sisters. Even the blowsy Auntie Ying is dealing with some unresolved tension with her twin sister, the Goddess of Getai.
What’s really amazing is how the music ties all of these aspects together, as we the audience witness the visual/aural irony of these girls gaining popularity and self-respect as they cheerily sing these lyrically-depressing Hokkien songs about pitiful lives, unrequited love, and impending death. Despite the language barrier, every single song resonates. The Papaya sisters, it seems clear, no longer lack “feel.” Not by a long shot.
When I first saw 881, I watched it during its record-breaking box office run in the summer of 2007. It was a packed audience, despite the fact that it had been out for months. After some initial confusion, I eventually found myself mesmerized and ultimately blown away by the movie, a feat that hasn’t happened to me with a Chinese language film since perhaps the heyday of Hong Kong cinema. A second viewing of the picture on DVD has not dimmed my enthusiasm for the film. Whether in the context of Singaporean film, Southeast Asian film, or just a plain ol’ film in general, 881 is still a winner, no matter how you slice it. (Calvin McMillin, 2008)