Film Review: 881

BOTTOM LINE: If ABBA could sing in Hokkien, they might have auditioned for Royston Tan's exuberant musical.

Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- If ABBA could sing in Hokkien (Fujian dialect), they might have auditioned for Royston Tan's "881." So exuberant is his re-creation of the campy and uniquely Singaporean art form of getai that he has revived its popularity and got local nonmoviegoers filing into multiplexes in droves. An anything-goes vaudeville performed in Hokkien around public housing estates to entertain vacationing spirits (and bored humans) during the monthlong Festival of Hungry Ghosts, getai provides the colorful setting for a flamboyant and feel-good tale of female friendship and rivalry.

The film speaks to mainstream audiences of Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan, where Hokkien culture has a stronghold, but requires careful marketing to make inroads into non-Chinese markets. Its culturally specific content and campy treatment could either charm or overwhelm audiences.

True to Tan's penchant for numerical titles ("15," "4.30"), "881" (pronounced ba ba yao in Mandarin) is a pun on the band name adopted by the heroines, the Papaya Girls. Despite their passion for getai, the best friends are frustrated with the lack of "feel" in their singing. Determined to succeed, they beg their manager and wardrobe consultant Aunt Ling (getai MC Liu Ling Ling) to introduce them to her estranged twin sister, the Goddess of Getai, who acts and dresses like Australian drag comedian Dame Edna. She bestows magic powers on the girls after they agree to abide by five rules, which among other things forbid loving or being loved by a man.

They become an overnight sensation, but soon are assailed by the usual obstacles in showbiz biopic films. Big Papaya (Yeo Yann Yann) is ostracized by her mother who despises getai for very personal reasons, while Little Papaya (Mindee Ong) futilely hides her deteriorating health (yes, there's even a terminal illness plot thrown in). Predictably, both Papayas have the hots for Guan Yin, Aunt Ling's deaf-mute son. Guan Yin, who loves playing with his pet cock (cue for cock jokes), is the film's narrator.

However, the sisters' most dangerous threat comes in the form of rival Durian Sisters, who resort to the ugliest trickery to sabotage their careers. Sexy, bitchy and dressed to kill (literally), they are as prickly and pungent as their name suggests. They are played with gleeful abandon by a DJ duo who are real-life twins of Chinese-Norwegian descent (see, the earlier quip on ABBA is not so off the mark). The climax has them challenge the Papayas to an all-stops-out contest with costumes of glorious Technicolor garishness, and songs that run the gamut from heartwrenching to tongue-in-cheek to downright soppy.

"881" is not mere self-conscious parody, but Tan's heartfelt love song to a nostalgic folk culture with roots all over Asia. Most of the songs are originally composed by Chen Jin Lang, a Singapore getai songwriting legend who died in 2006.

However, each frame in "881" is a carnival of untamed colors and textures. Watching it is like having to eat all 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins in one sitting. He also substitutes credible characterization and authentic depiction of offstage lives of getai veterans for broad strokes of caricature and tear-jerking hospital scenes. Still, if you see it in the same mood as watching a Bollywood musical, this is a hugely enjoyable experience.

881
Zhaowei Films/Media Corp. Raintree Pictures/Media Development of Singapore/Scorpio East Pictures/Infinite Frameworks
Credits:
Director-screenwriter: Royston Tan
Producers: Gary Goh, James Toh, Chan Pui Yin, Seah Saw Yam, Freddie Yeo, Tan Fong Cheng, Ang Hwee Sim
Executive producers: Daniel Yun, Eric Khoo, John Ho, Mike Wiluan
Director of photography: Daniel Low
Music: Eric Ng
Composer: Robert Mackenzie
Co-producers: Masaaki Wakasugi, Chieko Murata
Editor: Low Hwee Ling
Cast:
Big Papaya: Yeo Yann Yann
Little Papaya: Mindee Ong
Aunt Ling/Goddess of Getai: Liu Ling Ling
Guan Yin: Qi Yu Wu
Durian Sisters: May & Choy

Running time -- 105 minutes
No MPAA rating
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