Kicking off the Perth stop of the Singapore Film Festival was Wayang Boy, a feel-good flick that explores the concept of Xenophobia in a uniquely Singaporean setting. The film features Denzyl Yashasvi Dharma as Raja, an Indian national who comes to Singapore with his Chinese stepmother and agrees to star in the school’s Chinese Opera performance in order to fulfil his father’s wish of seeing him on stage. Bringing in cultural greats such as Hong Kong actress Michelle Yim and Chinese Opera master Law Kar Ying, as well as talented funnyman and woman Chua Enlai and Kym Ng, the film tries its hardest to criticise modern Singaporean attitudes to the recent influx of foreigners while juggling complex undertones of a dying Chinese Opera industry. Although a pleasant viewing experience, something tells me that newbie director Raymond Tan took on a little too much to handle.
I must applaud the film’s unmistakably Singaporean undertones which oozed out of every pore of the movie, from its meticulous on-location shoots to the petty banter of the young children; there were certainly many scenes which resonated with many audience members, myself included. The script was another a standout point for me that brought out an authentic but lesser-known feistiness hidden within the Singaporean identity-see Kym Ng’s ‘spit-spit auntie’ video for further illustration of this point.
But although meticulous in cultivating a sense of Singaporean identity throughout the movie, its core message of unity and cultural awareness was let down by a lack of care in portraying foreign cultures and distinct moral direction. The movie started off with a voiceover introducing Kym Ng and Chen Tianwen as rival parents who were friends and haters of foreigners respectively, even making it a point to disrupt the storyline with extended excerpts detailing their feelings towards foreigners. But even after going through all that trouble, the movie took a confusing turn in moral direction by depicting Ng trying to get rid of foreigners to win a car and shouting at a foreigner on the MRT, while Tianwen on the other hand is depicted as a ‘friend of the foreigners’, treating his foreign workers well while picking on the Singaporeans, and buddying down with them for a shared celebratory meal. Unnecessary scenes between the two derailed the story to no end, with only its heartfelt comedic element barely guiding the story forward.
Furthermore, authenticity in accents was another letdown for the film. Seeing as the main character had only just arrived from India, I find it hard to understand how he already has a Singaporean accent. However, this was a minor issue compared to the portrayal of Kym Ng’s son as an all-singaporean boy who instead spoke with a strong Chinese accent, and even worse, Bobby Tonelli’s dismal attempt at an Australian accent which came in bursts that had more or less given way to a thick American accent by the end of the movie. Even Chen Tianwen’s pronunciation of the word ‘mate’ was more accurate than Tonelli, who seemed to give the role little thought.
All actors were exceptionally believable in their roles, making up a genuine and likable cast which gave the movie a certain spark, however the storyline was muddled and unnecessarily complex at times. Michelle Yim’s character as right-hand woman to primary school principal Enlai and her role as confidante and partner in crime of Chinese teacher/Chinese Opera club co-ordinator Law Kar Ying left the audiences wondering where her alliances lay. Her giggles and eyelash-batting antics at both Enlai and Law distracted audiences very much so from the Chinese Opera undertones of the movie, rendering it second fiddle to the overarching theme of xenophobia and going no further than to explicitly say that Chinese Opera is a dying art, rather than motivating the audience further with a deeper sense of its cultural artistry and heritage. The half-boiled notion of getting the queen to visit a Singaporean primary school to watch the students’ showcase left a bad taste in my mouth, with the camera skirting around the corners of the frame, to portray only a Caucasian granny whose face was mostly hidden. The plotline could have easily been changed to something much more simple and tasteful, and could even be seen by some as disrespectful to foreigners, completely the opposite of what the movie aimed to achieve.
But all in all, the movie’s strength lay in its optimism and comedic value. Being able to portray such difficult and complex undertones through a comedy is never an easy task, and I believe director Raymond Tan’s heart was in the right place. An immensely fresh and innovative idea which although didn’t reach its full potential, was still a pleasurable experience for all Singaporeans which I would recommend ; if not just for a couple of hearty laughs.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Singapore Film Festival makes its way to Sydney on Saturday 31st October. For more details HERE