It's a Great, Great World: Film Review

Nostalgic, feel-good stories set in an amusement park is only periodically amusing.

"It’s a Great, Great World" dramatizes a few individuals who made a living in a Singaporean amusement park with 40 years’ history.

SINGAPORE – It’s a Great, Great World dramatizes a few individuals who made a living in a Singaporean amusement park with 40 years’ history. Like fairground attractions, their stories are scattered all over the place and some are more thrilling than others. Kelvin Tong, who made Singapore’s most stylish horrors and thrillers (Ruler #1, Kidnapper) is content to please crowds with nostalgic, mushily heartwarming scenarios with no central theme. Nevertheless, the last segment is so Rabelaisian and spiritedly orchestrated that it enables the film to end on a high note.

Released locally as festive fare for Chinese New Year, it stayed in cinemas for a month but it has narrow appeal internationally. Aside from Asia-themed festivals, it might pick up mild interest from Taiwan buyers thanks to a shared heritage of Hokkien dialect and culture.

Fashion photographer Min (Olivia Ong) returns from the U.S. to attend her grandmother Huay’s funeral. Just before selling off the family-run photo studio, Min decides to return Huay’s favorite photos to the subjects she photographed. She tracks down Uncle Beng (Justin Ang), a kebab vendor at Great World Amusement Park. He tells her anecdotes of friends who plied their trade at Great World.

Tong tries to capture turning points in life when the personal magically brushes against the historical, like children’s show performer Boo (Henry Thia) meeting Elizabeth Taylor in 1978, or game proprietor Mei Juan (Joanna Peh) losing her Malaysian lover Leong (Zhang Zhen Huan) during Singapore Independence in 1965, or the Japanese occupation on the night of Beng’s wedding banquet in 1941.  

This last episode is a visual and verbal stunner that combines scrumptious culinary scenes with a riot of Chinese dialects, all orchestrated with snappy rhythm (absent in other parts) and festive aplomb. From the restaurant staff’s effort to make the day the happiest in the couple’s lives, to the bride’s silent message to the groom, it overflows with good will and tenderness.

Although other stories are presented without any fresh element or style, the film sustains enough dramatic intensity by condensing each character’s experience to one significant moment. However, it suffers from slack narrative structure. As the stories do not follow a chronological timeline, there is no sense of continuity, given the totally self-contained nature of each story. Since characters from different segments don’t interact, the only link is Huay.

A dapper photographer who smoked, donned men’s clothes, Huay her own boss. Ahead of her time, she is actually the most fascinating character. Yet, the script makes the huge oversight of not giving her a back story, so the transition to contemporary life symbolized by Min is also severed.

The production, especially the stagey sets, looks cheaper that the reported budget of around $1.56 million. Even with an abundance of authentic props and costumes, each era fades in and out without a strong periodic feel. The colors textures are far too sharp and gleaming to recreate the look of the past.