Saturday, November 26, 2011

Already Famous (一泡而红 / Yi Pao Er Hong)

Wish Upon a Star

Unless your head is buried in the sand the last few years in Singapore, chances are you'll have heard of Michelle Chong the actress-host. Now add producer, writer and director to that list, as she had decided to take a sabbatical from television, pour her resources into filmmaking, and frankly wanted to get something out of her system, though I'm not quite sure what it is. One can only guess whether it is to follow the mantra of the film of carpe diem and just do it; pursuing one's dreams, or an ode to a beloved family member (the grandmother in the film's case), or just to exercise demons experienced from being a veteran in the local film and television industry is anyone's guess, but her maiden effort here is pretty much testament of any rookie willing to put on multiple hats to experiment rather than focusing on core strengths.

And Michelle Chong's core strengths in the last few years had been her portrayal of politically incorrect caricatures, complete with accurate gestures, mannerisms and accent, from bimbos to domestic helpers that won her acclaim in the sitcom The Noose. Here she plays a kampung girl from Yong Peng, Malaysia called Lee Kar Kiao, later also known as Zann as she cooked up a name from two of her idols Zoe Tay and Fann Wong, television stars in Singapore, as she aspires to be an actress just like them. She's convinced by her grandmother to pursue that dream, otherwise she'll be stuck in selling television sets (and incessantly watching all the Singapore made dramas), selling pirated DVDs with her brother, or witnessing her mom gamble their family finances away. So she packs her bags and off she goes to Singapore where she encounters a rude awakening that life in the Lion city is not cheap no thanks to costs of living going ever upward, and is filled with many nasty folks, and before one can become famous, one has to suffer the slamming of a lot of doors in one's face, as if a requisite to build up a thick hide prior to fame come aknocking.

The English title does ring a little irony to it, because Michelle Chong is already famous in this part of the region, which accounts for her ability to rope in fellow friends from the industry to partake in turning up in her debut film to play exaggerated versions of themselves, or caricatures that would have found a place in any local sitcom. There's the one and only Singaporean drag queen Kumar looking for skin whitening products, Boris Boo (who in my opinion scored a hat-trick of bad feature films to date) starring as none other than Boris the television director, the catalyst in seeding the thought that Zann had more to offer but dropped her like a sack of potatoes, going to show just how hypocritical and superficial relationships are forged and forgotten in the industry, David Gan in self-deprecating mode in an early scene and reappearing as a judge much later on, lending his famous hair salon premises for a scene as well, prominent lawyer Samuel Seow from Samuel Seow Law Corporation dishing Zann some hard truths, Irene Ang parodying her successful profesional life as a talent agency CEO, fellow actors Bryan Wong and Cynthia Koh as a talent quest's preliminary round judges, The Noose colleague Chua Enlai hamming it up as a bitchy Filipino salesman and Patricia Mok and Benjamin Heng also double-teamed as staff in a modelling studio. And that's a non-exhaustive list!

Yes in some ways the film has characters that are politically incorrect, and Michelle Chong doesn't make any apologies for it. Foreign talent characters feature heavily in the film, especially when the male romantic lead is a Eunos coffeeshop kopi-kia (coffee boy) Ah Seng from Taiwan (Alien Huang from Taiwan), who had come to Singapore in search for his dream romantic companion whom he finds in Zann, since both are birds of the same feature coming from abroad looking to pursue their dream and a better life in Singapore. Come to think of it, everyone in Singapore did not show Zann any form of compassion, with the only acts of kindness coming from Ah Seng, and one wonders if that's a subtext that Michelle needed to pointedly ask just how our society had become with the ever increasing lack of graciousness being widely publicized these days.

Being a first film, there are some areas that had flaws, such as its sound which was pretty inconsistent in some scenes, especially the outdoor ones, and I thought Michelle Chong could have done better than to scrimp on the soundtrack, preferring to overuse the theme song each time any scene kick started Zann's attempt to pursue her goal in life through the episodic meeting of industry folks. We get it already, since the song repeats ad nausem about how she's from Yong Peng, and how she wants to be on television and not selling television sets. It was cute the first time round with its comical sounding lyrics, but making it a theme song each time Zann has to appear, is overkilling a good thing.

Clocking in close to two hours, Already Famous could have done with some improvement in its pacing, tightening up on some needless scenes in the first half hour spent in Zann's Malaysian home, and then summarizing some of the scenes involving the many caricatures. We know what's coming, so there's really no need to drag scenes out, or repeating them in different ways, such as showing just how mean her co-workers in Watson's can be. Product placement is also strong in the film, with many brands on display, some subtle and some not so, such as Bubble Tea outlets and cosmetics, although the filmmaker did rein in on the level of blatant praise, unlike the slippery slope some other veteran filmmaker had gone down on. But while it had stopped short in selling out to its sponsors, it did make a concerted effort to recognize those already famous in Singapore, since it always jump at the opportunity to remind us who the cameos are, and what sort of achievements they have already gotten, like a nod in their direction and a big thank you for helping.

While the posters and the trailers may suggest a strong romantic theme, it's actually limited to a few scenes to play on the love story between Ah Seng and Zann, and each time they came together it's more of a discussion of their respective dreams in Singapore, akin to watching a bunch of foreigners in a new land talk about how they want to strike any opportunities that come their way in their adopted land, and once they do, uproot themselves to go elsewhere. For that I salute the film's honesty in portraying things as they are in its subtext, even if those in power choose to ignore this possibility.

Is this Michelle Chong's comical yet cathartic release after so long in the industry she came from, since there's no lack of mean characters from makeup folks right down to dodgy directors? One can only guess. One thing's for sure though, it's that common reminder to life life and daring to dream big, even if ultimately what we have achieved is something that falls a little short of the stars we have been aiming for. But at least we can say we've tried to do so and in that come little or no regrets on its attempt, and Michelle Chong can now safely say that she's tried to helm a feature film all on her own, even if Already Famous did seem to wobble its way as it lost steam towards its finale.

And one more point to make: Those who have not watched Darren Anorofsky's Black Swan will also need to know to steer clear of Already Famous, because this film blatantly revealed everything pertinent about Black Swan right down to its ending. You have been warned.

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