In the Singapore of today, the closest the man in the street can get to watching an opera troupe performance, is during the Hungry Ghosts Festival, and that is only if the getai nearby is not one filled with B-grade singers or blaring repetition of current prices during the auctions. Last I remembered anything about opera troupes, was the Hong Kong movie Peking Opera Blues, as well as something on television which I had followed in the 80s, a series produced by then SBC/TCS called Painted Faces, if memory serves me well.
Today marked the world premiere of Royston Tan's latest short film, Sin Sai Hong, which features a series of vignettes of Singapore's oldest Hokkien opera troupe, piecing together the troupe's favourite performance pieces, all set in the backstage. It's pretty amazing that a short film can garner a world premiere reception of this scale - with its own production booklet distributed for free to the audience, the attendance of the cast and crew of the troupe, and a mini dinner reception (read: food). When was the last time you saw a local short film get so much attention, and played to a full house at the National Museum's Gallery Theatre. Commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore for its opening festival, I would say this short film is indeed a valuable one, as it marks a chapter of our cultural history now very rarely seen, and yes, it truly deserves to be an archived piece once it makes its rounds on the silver screen.
And seriously, who better to helm the project, than Royston Tan himself? When we interviewed him earlier this year, he mentioned that he was rushing off after the interview as a volunteer opera troupe actor, playing a foot soldier. Little did we know it was all part of his dedicated research, all of a year, for this short film.
Like Hock Hiap Leong, Sin Sai Hong is full of energy, but of a different sort. While the former is jazzed with Ge Lan's song and comical moments of the cast hamming it up for the screen, the latter is of a more serious tone, in its capturing of moments behind the stage, where cast and crew mingle in costume, and belt out their personal favourite numbers. No worries if you're not versed in Hokkien, there are English subtitles to reach out to you, as well as beautifully rendered Hokkien subtitles for those who would like to try their hand at reading them.
Watching this today with the attendance of the troupe (from head honcho right down to musical crew), and their family, friends and fans, it was indeed a boisterous moment when many identified with the stars on screen, and you know who the fans were as they sang along to the familiar tunes belted out from classics of yesteryear. Those who watched it today were in for a special treat, as the screening began with a 5 minute presentation made up of a series of old photographs of the stars, flashing across the screen to an unidentified Hokkien song. And while waiting for everyone to be seated, I thought the title put up on screen was beautifully done too (sorry no pics, didn't have a camera with me you see).
While Sin Sai Hong has that distinctive Royston Tan signature flavour, it somehow seemed relatively muted in influencing the narrative, as you can feel the sheer immense power of the performing troupe coming across with its beautifully cluttered sets, elaborate costumes (they don't call it "big movie" for nothing), immaculately painted faces, delicate hand gestures, and the loud clashing of cymbals fusing with other Chinese musical instruments, including an electronic keyboard.
Yes, in its 4 generations and 96 year history, Sin Sai Hong has to evolve too. And what made the short poignant, are the two new pieces of song delivered by the cast toward the end of the movie, with thanks and pondering about the future. It's no mean feat to be surviving so long and facing constant challenges to stay relevant and attract new crowds, or more importantly, the quest to inject new blood into this medium of entertainment.
I'm confident that this short will garner acclaim and awards if it makes its run in the film festival circuits, but more importantly, allow audiences both local and around the world, to experience up close, the magic of street opera. Highly recommended, and yes, you should grab a ticket as soon as there's any announcement of this short being up for any screening any time soon! Hope to see this included in the next Royston Shorts DVD collection!