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.
Director: Royston Tan
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
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