Campy, heartfelt but flawed story

TALE OF CONTRAST: The story of Fei Fei (played by Chua, above) coping with her father's dementia and her lost dreams sits uneasily next to the nuttiness of the rest of the movie.


    Sep 17, 2015

    Campy, heartfelt but flawed story

    3688 (PG)

    Comedy drama/100 minutes/Opens today

    Rating: 3.5/5

    The story:

    Parking attendant Fei Fei (local singer Joi Chua) wants to be a singer but does not pursue her dream. Her job entails long hours and she has to look after her father (stage actor Michael Tan) who has dementia. She finally decides to listen to her heart and joins a national talent contest. However, on the day of the finals, her father goes missing.

    THE colours pop, the characters have their feet in HDB-land but their heads are alive with art and music from another time. In a world that has little time for dreamers, they struggle to be one with their passions. Welcome to the world of Royston Tan.

    In 3688, the film-maker once more plunges the viewer into his universe - a Singapore that looks like nothing you have ever seen, but which you recognise.

    Tan's forte is detail and mood, not story structure, and this work's lack of narrative discipline is infuriating - motifs are repeated ad nauseam, skits are inserted willy-nilly and music sequences serve neither character or story. What people expect from Tan is sparkle and heart, and luckily there is plenty of that.

    Fei Fei (Chua) is a single, 38-year-old parking attendant looking after a father (Tan) struggling with dementia. He used to be a Rediffusion technician and believes himself to be still employed by the now-defunct cable audio service, loved by the Cantonese- and Hokkien-speaking communities.

    Fei Fei has her hands full coping with boss Jenny (veteran entertainer Rahimah Rahim), a merciless car-ticketer disgusted by Fei Fei's forgiving nature.

    What keeps Fei Fei going is her love for the singing of her namesake, Taiwanese legend Fong Fei-fei, and her friends, which include Auntie Hai Xian (Liu Lingling), a kopitiam owner prone to outlandish outfits and mid-service song-belting. Her son Hai Er (local rapper Shigga Shay) helps her out at the coffee shop.

    Writer-director Tan's first feature in seven years circles around themes of fragile souls torn between beauty and duty, a theme that propelled both 881 (2007) and 12 Lotus (2008).

    Tan set his previous two films in the world of getai, or street music theatre. 881's Cinderella fairy tale was a hit; 12 Lotus kept the cartoonish tone but was shades bleaker, which kept everyone away except fans.

    You can take the film-maker out of getai, but you cannot take the getai out of the film-maker: Tan sets his new film in the world of coffee shops and carparks, but the spirit of getai lives here in all but name.

    "Camp" as a word barely describes the outfits worn by Auntie Hai Xian, for example, and Fei Fei's carpark colleagues form a chorus line when needed.

    Chua does a good job as the quiet and determined vehicular fine-slapper, as does Tan playing her father. Their story, however, sits uneasily next to the nuttiness of the rest of the movie, up to and including Hai Xian's food-themed hats, Shigga Shay's rapping and the rat-a-tat multilingual punning.

    Fei Fei's father Uncle Radio's illness traps him in the past, just as his daughter's dashed musical aspirations trap her.

    As a writer-director, Tan carries around an idealised version of old Singapore in his head, while his characters suffer from attachments to things long gone. As single-minded auteur visions go, it is not the worst, but perhaps it is time to express that idea in fresher and, one hopes, less scattershot ways.