The Seventh Month, according to Chinese beliefs, is the month where the gates of Hell open, and the ghouls and goblins of the underworld get a one-month visit-Earth pass. They roam around, hungry and looking for entertainment, so to appease the spirits, humankind will offer food and fruits, and burn paper money to line their pockets so that they do not disturb us. Also, we have to provide entertainment, so that happy souls do not come haunt us, like those in Kelvin Tong's The Maid, which is also set during this lunar Seventh Month.
The introduction of 881 looks like a documentary, and I won't be surprised if the footage is taken from actual getai (song stage) locations. Getais have evolved over the years, traditionally you have Chinese Opera being performed, with the front rows being reserved for the "good brothers", but nowadays, it has become quite business like, with top shows, comperes, hosts, singers, dancers and other various performers being lined up to entertain the masses, who turn out in droves just to catch the latest song-stage happenings. It has become a sub-culture of sorts if you wish, and the neighbourhood heartlands are fertile ground for entertainment such as these. And almost pairing up with the song-stage is another tentage set aside for auctions, but that's another story for another time.
Royston Tan, in his short films, have dabbled with various themes and styles, and I always had an affinity toward those with song and dance, such as Hock Hiap Leong, and Cut (which has been infamously banned by the same organization now throwing their weight behind this). In his feature films, he had made the experimental, noisy 15, and contrasted that by making a film at the other end of the spectrum, with the quiet, artsy 4:30. With 881, he has stuck a balance to make a commercial film, which is fun, with its songs and dances, yet keeping in sight the serious tone with its dramatic moments. He had traded off Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) vulgarities and gangsta-rap, to showcase the other side of the beautiful language with its lyrical qualities and the ease of razor sharp retorts, and exchanged strained contemplations, for glitz and glamour. I agree that 881 is arguably his most accessible film to date, for the masses at home, and to introduce a sub-culture here for those abroad.
Like a big getai, 881 plays out like an actual song-stage, with loud moments interjected with song and dance, with fantastical atmosphere and elements taken a leaf out of martial arts movies done in tongue-in-cheek style. Excellent music, meaningful lyrics, and beautiful costumes all click to make 881 work like a well-oiled getai machinery where everything moves like clockwork, giving the real mccoy a run for their money, despite how laissez-faire it all seem. And real life imitated reel life too in a scene where the characters actually get pelted by rivals! But what's more important, is how Royston captured an actual slice of the industry - the spirit of getai (pun not intended), and archived it for posterity with 881. This isn't something new, as he had done something similar with his previous short film Sin Sai Hong, specifically for the opera troupe of the same name. Here, we get to hear songs from the legendary getai entertainer Chen Jin Lang, as well as having on film, the larger than life entertainers from the actual getai industry, with Liu Ling Ling snagging the prominent role of the guardian(s) of the Papaya sisters.
Personally, I feel 881 had achieved another goal which I thought was equally important, and that is to expose the younger (cinema-going) generation to the magic of song-stage. I'd be pleasantly surprised if the number of getai attendees continue to grow with wider demographics than just be confined to the older generation. But of course, those songs performed live might not come with subtitles, though who knows, things change, since we even have opera troupes performing with subtitles projected now, in attempts to reach out. And if the movie travels around the world successfully (already pre-sold to Japan), the Lunar Seventh Month festivities could even be marketed by the tourism board as a must-see-must-experience phenomenon when visitors drop by during the period (for this year, it's 13th August to 10th September).
881 is told through the eyes and viewpoint of Guan Yin (local television heartthrob Qi Yu Wu), a mute who spends his free time playing with his cock (yes, thus providing indirect bawdy comedic references), whose mother Auntie Ling (Liu Ling Ling) is the guardian of the Papaya sisters. The mother-son duo are the pseudo-managers for the sisters, responsible for designing the costumes and songs for the sisters to perform, as well as offer various event management services, ferrying them from assignment to assignment. Royston Tan does a Hans Christian Andersen here, for the Papaya sisters to realize their dream of performing on the song-stage (given that they're really, really horrendous performers), they make a pact with a Getai-Goddess (also played by Ling), who grants them the power of "feeling" and magical peacock feathers, in exchange for their strict adherence to her 5 unbreakable rules. They become the quintessential modern day Little Mermaids, but naturally, rules are meant to be broken with dire consequences, and 881 chronicles the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of the Papaya sisters, in the face of adversary posed by rivals, the Durian sisters.
It's a musical through and through, with characters spontaneously breaking out into song, but not everything's fun and laughter, as the sisters do face their fare share of inner demons and challenges, and what's two sisters going to do when there's this understated nagging feeling of affection for their hunky close friend too? Little Papaya Ong Bok Gua (Mindee Ong) faces an uphill battle with time, while Big Papaya (Yeo Yann Yann) has to convince her mother of her profession of choice once the Seventh Month comes rolling around. Granted, to some, getai singers do not get the general nod of approval, given the poor image that the high-and-mighty have on this little local sub-culture, that the performers can't sing, can't dance, can't entertain, and have to rely on loud bass to drown their poor vocals, disturbing the neighbourhood; the complaints go on. But opinions could change once they understand the spirit of things, and when the Papaya sisters shed their inhibitions and personal misfortunes aside, they engage everyone on a whole different plane altogether, of course with help from Ming Zhu sisters, real getai singers who provide the Papaya sisters their singing prowess.
And surprise, the movie will actually touch you, on different levels. Those who like melodramas will find no lack of moments to let the floodgates open at their tearducts, as the ending is particularly fitting, meaningful and yet, bittersweet. Despite a runtime of close to 2 hours, 881 shuffles breezily, with noisy fanfare moments balanced appropriately with quieter ones. I thought while Kelvin Tong's Men in White was an attempt at mo-lei-tau (nonsensical) comedy, 881 had a more natural attempt in infusing those elements into the story, without coming off as too trying. Given that the past two Royston feature films have more of a testosterone filled presence with male leads, 881 marked a stronger feminine presence with excellent, credible performances by Mindee Ong, Yeo Yann Yann and Liu Ling Ling, coupled with the Durian sisters played by MTV VJs May and Choy. They / their characters were a lot of fun, with their faux pas Hokkien language ability ramped up for laughs intentionally (they can't speak the language and had to learn their lines phonetically), and their uber-crass and provocative performing sequences turning the heat up.
There's plenty on offer here for audiences, and they all work - drama, song and dance, comedy and camp, an appreciation and ode to the cultural elements of getai, with an expansion and provision to allow for greater understanding of the unwritten laws behind the scenes, the puns and wordplay to satisfy locals familiar with the language used, yet not alienating those who don't understand it thoroughly, and spectacle enough to warrant it being watched on the silver screen. This year had seen a number of quality local films making their way to the cinemas, and it is without a doubt too that 881 ranks high amongst them. By far, I will rate 881 as possibly the best Royston Tan feature film to date!
I will unabashedly proclaim I love 881 ("yo-ah-yo!", so goes the chant), and have one wish should there be a DVD release of the movie, and that is to allow a release packed with loads of extras. Local DVD distributors have peculiar reasons for a preference for bare-boned DVD releases, but given the many edited song-dance segments, it will be a real treat if we could watch the performances (if already filmed), in their entirety. Then it'll be "Huat Ah" (Prosperous!) indeed!