There was New World, Gay World and of course, Great World amusement park, which combined had entertained crowds from the 20s to the 70s in Singapore and were probably premier night life destinations of yesteryears, boasting something for everyone with their myriad of shows, rides, and of course, food. Nostalgia had crept into our local filmmakers psyche before, but it's not until now that filmmaker Kelvin Tong had taken a big step in stamping his mark on what would be an ambitious studio backed film that reminisces about the past, and boasting an ensemble bevy of stars from today to introduce the new generation to something from our collective past.
Kelvin Tong and his co-writers Ken Kwek (with creds from Glen Goei's The Blue Mansion and Tong's film of last year Kidnapper) and Marcus Chin came up with four stories set in four different decades that Great World had seen through, from 1941 to 1975, and five stories of course if you include the narrative glue set in the current era. Told through the memory of Chew Chong Meng's Ah Meng character, a kebab seller who once hawked his food on the grounds of the amusement park, in flashbacks to the grand-daughter (played by Olivia Ong) of his recently deceased acquaintance, the short stories were rather independent of one another, each tackling the various entertainment offerings across the decades and famous highlights such as the Ghost Train ride, the Sky Cinema, the Flamingo night club and even the legendary Wing Choon Yuen Cantonese restaurant.
This film has something for everyone young and old, either introducing new perspectives to the former while humouring the latter group with sights and sounds capturing what was a entertainment lifestyle epi-centre. Meticulous research culled from archive trawling as well as extensive interviews with the older generation got translated to the screen with a quarter of the 2 million dollar budget going toward ensuring the sets, costumes and props were as close to what actually was decades ago, ensuring a consistently high production value brought to life by plenty of cameos from television - in all likelihood the largest ever assembled in a local film thus far - which will of course rake up the film's appeal.
But what worked first and foremost are the stories which covered a wide spectrum of ideas, themes and genres, from simple tales to more elaborate affairs with the slightest of political undertones against the historical background of the respective eras, with cheeky references all rolled into one. There's so much to like and fall in love with the film, that minor petty flaws are forgiven (such as that continuity edit involving a Rolls Royce).
You will definitely have a favourite tale amongst the four/five on offer, and I take exceptional liking to the segment involving a marriage banquet between Chong Meng's Ah Meng and his mute wife, played by Apple Hong. This particular short had glimpses akin to Kelvin Tong's early short film Movable Feast, and here we get introduced to the mouthwatering cuisine of the famous Wing Choon Yuen, and showcased with comedy, the range of languages that the Chinese spoke at the time - we may not know exactly what the other is saying, but either we were all hidden dragons to not reveal our innate linguistic abilities, or we do get by in comprehension ultimately. Undesirable traits associated with the respective dialect groups also got an airing here, but never meant as an insult, but to underline the petty beliefs held by generations in their sweeping statements and attitudes. What more, this arc boasted some superb SFX in a poignant, moving tale about uncertainty that a viewer today will come to identify as one of the darkest periods of our history, and fear what's in store for all the characters. With Marcus Chin, Bryan Wong, Kym Ng and a host of others, perhaps Cheng Shu Cheng stole the show as the stingy provision shop businessman who wants to keep up the pretenses, with Dennis Chew's Aunty Lucy turn being the blip in this offering.
The other stories are also no pushovers. There's a romantic tale between a game stall operator (Joanna Peh) and the son of a medicated oil seller (Zhang Zhen Huan) that got set against the backdrop of Singapore's separation and independence, with each of the characters representing one half of the neighbours linked by a Causeway, who share a frequently testy relationship, that deep down we actually have a lot more in common than we would like to admit and acknowledge. When this segment rolls around you'll just about see how creative one can get with dialects in self-promoting one's wares, be it the Ghost Train (Tong has great difficulty distancing himself from horror?) ride, the kebab stall offerings or to entice someone to part with money for medicated oil, or a try out at the game stores. They ring off in perfect melodies, and plenty of comedy that just cannot be represented by the use of Mandarin.
Then in what I thought was a casting coup, Huang Wenyong and Xiang Yun star opposite each other with the former as the host of the Flamingo nightclub, and the latter as the has-been singer Rose who's seeing the twilight of her career, in a story about unrequited love. One of my earliest memories of local television was a serial with the both in leading roles in a period drama, and to see them paired up for this big screen outing, just highlighted how time flew by. I'm not quite sure if Xiang Yun had to lip sync through the various songs here, but she did look a tad uncomfortable and stiff especially in her dance routine, but perhaps playing up to her role as one who is already jaded and tired of playing the waiting game.
And in what would be yet another pairing between Malaysian actress Lai Ming and Singapore comedian Henry Thia as mother and son, this was perhaps one of the simplest story in the film's offering, showcasing live performances for kids' entertainment, and for movie groupies (*ahem*), camping out to catch a glimpse of the stars wasn't something remote as it had happened before as well, though here with hilarious and heartwarming results about a son taking pains to bring cheer to his elderly mom. Rounding up as characters serving as narrative glue include Yvonne Lim as the chain-smoking photographer whose photographs got picked up for a closer look by her descendent, which also involves Hong Konger Nancy Sit in a small supporting role that together with Olivia Ong, tackles how one should not just discard the past (that Singapore of today is very prone to), that some things are worthwhile to hold on to.
The rating of this film is peculiar and probably noteworthy. It's rated G, meaning it's as squeaky clean as early Disney films, and frankly it really is, with things kept chaste and nary a vulgarity uttered. Also, unless I'm dreaming, this film had a dominant non-Mandarin language track, keeping close to how Singapore/Malayan Chinese would have spoken in the past before the conforming Speak Mandarin campaigns started to kick into society and schools. I'm glad it did not have to suffer the indignity of being dubbed into Mandarin since we all know how bad the trailer had sounded, but for its artistic and historic merits had probably been given the go-ahead to keep its language track intact, which had a smattering of major Chinese languages from Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, and a host of others such as Hainanese, Shanghainese and Hakka as well.
The wikipedia entry for Great World City might be nothing more than a stub now, but hopefully there will be some inspired by this film to dig a little deeper, and probably expand the site through extensive research done. If this film proves to be a success, one wonders if there could be an amusement park filmic slam with stories told based upon the backdrop of the New and Gay Worlds. After all, there was a Rose Chan biopic being mooted once before, and she was one of the "red cards" back then - if a feature can't work, then perhaps a segment of an anthology just might.
As a local film engineered to take an audience on a trip down memory lane, it doesn't pull its punches in making it worthwhile through its all round quality production values, with earnest tales to tell that strived to capture just about everything that epitomizes the myriad nightlife and entertainment offerings from the past all under one shared compound. Highly recommended!