Director:  Royston Tan
Year: 2007
Rating: 8.0
Country: Singapore

This joyous colorful celebration of what is termed the “Getai” musical scene in Singapore comes at perhaps unexpected hands. In his previous two features – both numbered titles as well – “15” and “4:30”, Tan delved into the grim social fabric of Singapore that the authorities pretend doesn’t exist in the well-mannered and controlled nation state. Though both films did well on the film festival circuit, neither were commercial hits as they strayed far too much into artistic hopelessness. 881 is an entirely different animal as it explodes with music, sentiment, fantasy and raucous insult comedy. And it was a huge success at the box office. In Singapore (and other Chinese communities) during the seventh month of each year it commemorates the Hungry Ghosts who come to visit from the afterlife with offerings of food and entertainment. A constant series of stage shows (Getai) are held to appease the ghosts and the front row is left empty for them to sit in. The songs performed are Hokkien pop and the artists who practice all year for this month long festival rush from stage to stage often dressed in wonderfully campy outlandish outfits in hope that they can get a chance to sing. The most famous of these male singers was Chen Jin Lang, who had over 1,000 costumes and who passed away in 2006 at the age of forty-five. Tan was finishing off his script at the time and in part made the film a tribute to this singer by using his songs – lovely ballads of heartbreak and hope.

In the very first minute of the film the audience is introduced to Little Papaya (Mindee Ong) and Big Papaya (Yeo Yann Yann) by the narrator of the film (who we learn later is a mute) – two girls born into different circumstances and with a different ending awaiting them – but what they have in common is a desire to become Getai singers. They meet at a Chen Jin Lang concert and under the tutelage of the humorously coarse kindhearted Auntie Ling (Liu Ling Ling) they form a duo called the Papaya Sisters (the title 881 comes from the numbers sounding like papaya in Hokkien). Their enthusiasm though is far greater than their talent and so Auntie Ling turns to her twin sister the Getai Goddess (also played by Liu Ling Ling as a sort of a campy musical Asia the Invincible) to give them the magical power of Getai. She bestows it upon them but warns them that they can never fall in love with anything but Getai or bad tidings will come their way.

The two friends become more and more successful on the circuit with their marvelous costumes that constantly delight and the beautiful songs – but they begin to run into the nefarious Durian Sisters (played by MTV VJs May and Choy) who prefer English to Hokkien and techno up the songs. As they tangle with each other in order to make the next show, the Durian Sisters aren’t above a trip, a push or throwing metal stars ninja style at the Papaya Sisters. Finally a face off of musical numbers is called – the newspapers call it the Battle of the Fruity Sisters – and an extravaganza of songs is held to beat the other down – but Little Papaya is sick and getting sicker and in a crushing scene she only prays to just get through one more year of song.

This is simply a marvelously old fashioned film suffused with songs that break out on stage or off – some joyful, others tragic – with a caustic comic underpinning that constantly keeps the film on the go and constantly entertaining. By the end it is also surprisingly sad and moving.

Written up Oct 2007