For detractors who view 12 Lotus with the preconceived notion that the follow up to Royston Tan's highly successful 881 is nothing but having another go at the same formula to repeat its success, you're in for a big surprise. No doubt that this movie also revolves in part around the Getai like 881, but 12 Lotus made 881 look like a walk in the park, having its emotions come more strongly across, being a darker film than the previous which in comparison was much fluffy with the bitchy rivalry between the Papaya and the Durian sisters taking centerstage.
If amongst the montage of song and dance in 881 were I to pick a favourite, it will be "12 Lotus", though it was sung to a relatively upbeat tune. Here, 12 Lotus the song became the backbone in which the story unfolded upon, having its chapters make interludes in between scenes, though not always in consistent terms. Telling the story of Ah Hua the Pitiful Lotus (played by both Mindee Ong and Liu Ling Ling for the different eras in a twenty year gap), it's a tragedy of sizable proportions about the hard life and times of a Getai singer, whose men in her life were all temporal, just like that in Jasmine Women, leaving her to fend for herself with her favorite comfort food in cream crackers, and a Goddess of Mercy statue as a security blanket. Incidentally, lead actor Qi Yu Wu was himself named Guan Yin in 881, and his security blanket was a live chicken he carried around.
There were a couple of plus points in this movie that benefited from its larger budget. Production values were clearly ramped up, and while 881 managed to get away with its knowingly non-existent crowds in its busy Getai scenes, here we have plenty of extras to jam the sessions. Costumes were less glitzy this time around, but nonetheless more gaudy. Songs too seemed to have extra oomph in them, and one performance had the screening hall's bass throbbing and pulsating non-stop. But you don't really get a host of songs featured here, which would really have been like a repeat of 881, although this time there were newer faces from the Getai scene who were given supporting roles, and a cinematic platform to showcase what they can do to a new audience.
Undoubtedly, Liu Ling Ling's fan base and profile grew with her debut cinematic outing in Royston Tan's earlier movie, but while essentially playing a larger than life version of herself in 881, here she gets to challenge herself in a more dramatic role. In fact, I would say that this movie opened a lot of doors for the cast involved, and had everyone get out of their comfort zones. For starters, Liu's enigmatic presence throughout 881 lifted many portions of that movie, and I thought 12 Lotus was missing her charismatic screen presence for the 1st half, so fans have to patiently wait for her appearance to continue the story of Ah Hua. And even then, it's to continue the drudgery of a fallen idol, which can get heavy on the emotions, in total opposites to her Getai persona, as well as her previous roles.
But that's not to say that Mindee Ong was a pushover in the earlier scenes. Given its split structure with a tragic pivot, I thought it was rather wry that there was a scene which the trailer included that involved a splashing of paint onto her during a performance, which of course brought back memories of an actual sabotage attack on her during the promotional tour of 881 last year. But Mindee again proved to have that spark and spunk to pull off Ah Hua's role, one who is willing to sacrifice a lot for the men in her life, but unfortunately, I think one mountain can't have two tigers, so she got to anchor the role in the first half, before Liu Ling Ling's taking over in the second.
While Liu had two roles to play in 881, and Qi Yu Wu didn't even get a speaking line then, it looks like payback time when Royston had Qi take on two relatively different roles here, and coupled it with song, dance, action and enough scenes to emote and show his acting chops - everything that he had missed out on. Qi can already be considered a veteran actor in the feature films already, having a number of starring roles under his belt with that in The Leap Years, 881 and The Home Song Stories, with no signs of stopping as he will soon add Painted Skin to his filmography.
In jest, i had even thought 12 Lotus could have been a proper Money No Enough 2, given almost every character here seemed to have money problems, or because of money being the perennial root of all evil, being a pretext of a lot of trouble to come. There's even a hilarious song and dance sequence which includes some very light jabbing at the policies of the authorities, but don't have me mistaken, this film is not a comedy, and even its laughable moments have a tinge of background melancholy and sadness to it, given the predicament of its characters.
Supporting and guest roles would probably be crowd favourites. Huang Yiliang whom we have seen take on a cinematic role in Jack Neo's I Not Stupid 2, lends a hand here as the compulsive gambling dad of Ah Hua, dispensing advice that was befallen on deaf years. Fans of 881 will also be glad to know that Yeo Yann Yann does return for an extremely small role here, just to complete the casting loop, while songstress Stefanie Sun gets a nice movie debut, and even David Gan seemed game to go back to basics. Hao Hao gets to play the grown up Astroboy, trusted friend of Ah Hua, but it did seem that majority of his dialogue seemed to have been dubbed over in Mandarin to avoid the risk of having the movie not clear the censors for its predominantly Hokkien dialect dialogue.
Royston Tan's 12 Lotus is probably his more mature film to date, being able to balance both sensitive drama with formula and material to engage the general local movie-going audience. Sure, 881 was more fun on the whole, but 12 Lotus had a lot more pathos going for it, and that's exactly where this movie shines, learning from 881 and not indulging and allowing the melodramatic moments to go overboard.
Since this is a GV Blog Aloud session, Qi Yu Wu, Eric Ng and Royston Tan were on hand to garner audience reception as well as to take on some questions fielded by the full house. Needless to say, some of the comments here are spoilers so please steer clear if you're adverse to them, and come back once you've seen the movie.
Qi Yu Wu opened by stating that he felt Royston had matured with 12 Lotus, even for himself as an actor, and thanked Royston for giving him strange and different roles for an opportunity to unravel his potential. Here, the challenge is to play two different characters in the same film, in two different eras.
Royston and Yu Wu also recounted the number of fight scenes in the movie, most of which had Yu Wu without any form of protection. Yu Wu even explained that the fight with Liu Ling Ling at the end of the movie was somewhat of a real fight, which was shot the whole night. Eric also shared that while he had 3 weeks to finish the soundtrack for 881, for 12 Lotus he only had 3 days! Royston also lent his vocals too, which superceded that of Yu Wu's in the balladic "1 Million Dollars" song.
As for the inspiration of the story, Royston revealed that 12 Lotus is a sad song, and the character was somewhat loosely based on the relative of a friend, who exhibited symptoms like what we see in Ling Ling's take on the character. Even the note pasted at the back of the main door beginning with "Dear Mr Policeman" was also based on something real, as were the episodes with the Goddess of Mercy statue. Royston hoped that through this tragic story, audiences will still be able to see her strength and her own ability to find a path to pave in the road of life ahead. He also added that 12 Lotus also provided him with an avenue to do the things he didn't manage to do in 881.
Eric went on to share the inspiration for one of the songs in 12 Lotus, where he was in Thailand in February when he was amazed by Thai Hip-Hop, which he introduced to Royston, who also became hooked. So he decided to do something along the same lines, but in Hokkien.
True to his "bad boy of Singapore cinema" persona, Royston responded to a question whether there was any issues with the censor board this time around. There is a 60% quota for dialect to be included in a film, and 12 Lotus had actually crossed that limit. So for the longest time the movie was waiting for a rating, and they had to do some adjustments. Despite having big name cameos like David Gan and Stefanie Sun in his movie, Royston had nothing but praises for them in their professionalism and their lack of egos, making them easy to work with in a happy environment, and thanked them for their support to him and to local films.
One question asked about the significance of the Dragonfly pendant. Royston did research and discovered that the dragonfly is an insect that can bring messages from the dead. It was also a strong creature, and he had thought about using a butterfly, a bee etc before settling on the resilient Dragonfly. When asked to recount his most difficult challenge in making the movie. Royston said that it was in the writing of the script, which is a lonely process, and one which he had done in France and Holland in the hotel room in between attending film festivals.
Yu Wu also joked that his roles in 12 Lotus enabled him to release all that hidden tension he had accumulated in 881 in not being able to sing and dance, or even speak in the earlier movie. Despite playing two "villainous" roles, there were subtle differences between the two, and compounding the problem was that the movie was not shot in chronological order, so he had to often check with Royston if his portrayal of those subtleties was spot on. There was a small scene where his character calls his mom back home, and needless to say, he did manage to tap on his personal experience for that scene. Royston also revealed that that scene was included so as to provide additional volume into the background of Yu Wu's character Ah Long II.
When asked if he would complete a trilogy of Getai-related movies, Royston stated that this would probably be the last Getai film, and that he wished to move on and explore different stories, though he did enjoy the technique that a musical platform provided in using one song to explain everything. But he assured that he doesn't like to get too comfortable, and would like to do something else. His next film is already something very different.
There was a tribute at the end of the credits to an "Auntie Huay", and Royston shared that she was the coffee lady at Frameworks (the post-production company), whose premises he had used to do post-production work as early as during his short film days. Over there, he got to know the coffee lady but never got to know her name. She had recently passed away, but not before mentioning that she had wanted to see 12 Lotus. Hence the tribute to her in the film.