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The rojak Singaporean “musical” comedy Number 1 was blessed with the Best Costume and Make-up Award at the Golden Horse Award two days ago. Was it a fluke?

It was not surprising that Mark Lee (李国煌) did not win the award for the best actor at the 57th Golden Horse Award (金马奖), but it took us by surprise that the film Number 1, in which Mr Lee has a leading role, received the Best Makeup and Costume Design award, which went—jointly—to the Malaysian stylist Guo Zisheng (郭子胜) and Singaporean designer Azni Samdin. That the costumes of Number 1 could beat the other nominees—the macabre ballroom-dancing film A Leg (腿), the Hong Kong bromance drama-thriller Hand Rolled Cigarette (手捲煙), the supernatural horror The Rope Curse 2 (粽邪), and, especially, the impeccably stylish thriller Precious is the Night (今宵多珍重)—stumped us.

Precious is the Night is a part-Singaporean production and it has locals in it too. It stars model-turned-photographer-turned-social-media-sensation-turn-actor Tan Chuando (陈川都), with costumes by the producer, Lim Sau Hoong (林少芬), a reputed Singaporean advertising maestro and a nominee of the President’s Design Award 2007. Fellow ad man Theseus Chan described Ms Lim as “a combination of her innate artistry, her gift for grace and her unique ethos”. Any film with elegant cheongsums, to us, has a clear lead in the best costume stakes. Precious is the Night is evocative in parts of Wong Kar Wai’s (王家卫) In the Mood for Love (花样年华, 2000) and co-directors Chen Kuo-Fu’s (陈国冨) and Gao Qunshu’s (高群书) The Message (风声, 2009). Its costumes (even with Mr Tan half naked or in singlets) are stylish and cinematically so.

Yet, it was the high-camp, high-jinx Number 1 that took home the award for Best Makeup and Costume Design. This is not turning up our noses at a Mark Lee vehicle, which, hitherto, has mostly been a platform for the brew of balderdash that Mr Lee and his “mentor” Jack Neo have made a career out of. A heterosexual man in real life doing drag is hardly the stuff of award seasons these days. (Why is it that so many actors from the Jack Neo school of comedy must have a drag act in their repertoire before they can be taken seriously as an actor?) Mr Lee’s acting has never been a stretch of any sort—of his ability and his willingness, or our imagination. His character, beneath the unnecessarily gaudy makeup, is a composite of what he has done—and not undone—in the past. We see the desperate contractor Ong in Money No Enough (钱不够用, 1998), the hardened Ah Beng in Liang Po Po: The Movie (梁婆婆重出江湖, 1999), the hapless father in I Not Stupid (小孩不笨, 2002), and even the soft-hearted ‘thief’ Lee Tok Kong in the English-language TV series Police and Thief (2004, 2005, 2006, 2008). Thankfully Mark Lee’s singing is a tad better—less one-note. But no matter how many Ah Bengs—even one with a degree in civil engineering as in Number 1—he plays, he will always be Mark Lee the Ah Beng.

Similarly, Number 1 is an amalgamation of movies, including, rather obviously, the heart-wrenching Taiwanese film Alifu: The Prince/ss (阿莉芙, 2017, and screened during the Chinese Film Festival in 2018) and the uplifting Canadian movie Stage Mother (2020). We saw in Number 1, as we did in both latter films, the all-too-queenly foibles, the clash of the straight and gay worlds, and the as many prejudices experienced as there are love. But Number 1, with its superficial story-telling, is essentially for the Ah Boys to Men (新兵正传) crowd, one that does not require emotional depth in cinematic story-telling. At times, it feels like a Singaporean movie trying to be a Taiwanese indie film trying to be a Singaporean dramedy. Subtlety has no place in this world of song and dance. Feathers and fake lashes are there to overshadow even a hint of tears—whether sorrow or joy. No voiceless pauses on the minutiae of drag life, just full-frontal bapok excess. It takes advantage of drag culture that has gone mainstream without exploring its layered-as-the-makeup complexity and parades the film’s protagonists to a mainstream audience like kueh kueh at a void deck function.

This is not a gang of misfits, as one might think of a group of drag queens (they do not, of course, have to be). Rather this is a gaggle of stock characters that do their thing, not spectacularly, in a nightclub with patrons of indeterminate sexual persuasion (just as the now-defunct drag central Boom Boom Room was never really a gay club per se?). They are over-the-top, even off-stage, refusing to remove their makeup for supper at a kopi tiam because cosmetics are expensive and it it takes too much effort to put them on in the first place. Even the token appearance of Kumar—oftentimes cutting and perceptive in his own stand-ups—could not save the film from its bland gila-gila posturing. And what semblance of poignancy was dashed when Mark Lee’s final outburst of emotions—none of the heart-tugging of the deeply touching eulogy in the final scenes of Alifu—was oddly cut shot with his angry wife going into labour so that a bunch of outrageously dressed queens can send her, practically on foot and against all traffic odds, from somewhere in Chinatown to Kandang Kerbau Women’s and Children’s Hospital. We are reminded till the end that Number 1 rides on slapstick, not clever digs.

And there is the costume. Azni Samdin is by no means an unknown designer although not many know him as his work is mostly in bridal wear for Malay weddings and in outfitting stars of Suria, such as his multi-hyphenate buddy Najib Ali, who not only dons Mr Samdin’s designs on television, but also for special occasions such as Hari Raya. Mr Samdin has also found fans in actress-presenter Huda Ali (no relation to Najib Ali) and Code of Law’s Fauzie Laily. Mr Samdin, who, too, dabbles in hair and makeup, counts himself as a stylist as well, and has worked on Suria shows such as Anugerah (Where Stars are Born) and regularly appeared in the Stailista segment of the Malay lifestyle and entertainment news program Manja. Mr Samdin has, in fact, had a long history in television, describing himself as an “Award Winning TV Producer/Director/Stylist turned Designer M Azni Samdin New (sic).” In fact, in 2007, he won a best director award at Pesta Perdana of that year, together with his mentor Mr Ali. His work in drag costumes reportedly goes back to the ’90s, when he assisted in the backstage of the Boom Boom Room, where a young Kumar had his break. According to Berita Harian, Mr Samdin “antara lain, beliau pernah menjadi penata gaya bintang Hong Kong, Sandy Lam (among other roles, was the stylist of stylish Hong Kong star, Sandy Lam).” Other stars who have been dressed by Mr Samdin include Tanya Chua and Dick Lee, as reported by Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报).

The Golden Horse awardee Azni Samdin. Photo: Azni Samdin/Facebook

His designs capture the exuberance of what Malay brides like in their baju nikah and baju sanding (different styles worn for the wedding ceremony throughout the day), and increasingly the grooms: lavishness. Key features of Mr Samdin’s bridal baju (which he gleefully spells as “bajoo” in his social media posts) are extraneous fichu attachments (on top of which are all the embellishments you can imagine), fishtail skirts, and peplums, some times layered, that he loves so much, he calls the application “peplumnisation”. For the men, he has a sort-of-bolero for them on top of an outer for the baju melayu, and by Facebook posts alone, appears to be extremely popular. Also a jewellery designer (some of the chunky necklaces used in the movie could have come directly from his studio), Mr Samdin, like Francis Cheong and Frederick Lee, uses social media really well, and, similar to the other two, likes extolling the pleasures of long hours with the needle. One “hi-neck (sic) embellishment,” he wrote, “took 2 nights” to complete. Or how “beadworks (sic) on sleeves end (sic)” was the result of “4 nights of sewing therapy”. Of a wedding dress, he exclaimed, “5 days leh work on the bajoo finishings and embellishings (sic)”. And he is an enthusiastic peddler, too. In one post of a jacket, he asked, “Nice rigggghhhhhtttt? You want one…?” Another, with a photo of Najib Ali in a Hari Raya baju, he tempted, “You want? You want? You want? Kau nak? Nak? Nak?”

It’s this fervent kampung spirit that Mr Samdin brings to the characters of Number 1. Sometimes it felt like we were watching an imaginary opening act for, say, a P. Ramlee concert. Only the act wasn’t doing the joget in the film. The Queens Braaa…derhood, as the performers gleefully call themselves, were lip-synching to clichéd and predictable gay anthems such as Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive (including a crude Hokkien version) and Zhang Huimei’s (张惠妹) Sisters (姐妹), Asian LGTBQ fave. Mr Samdin’s love of bejeweled colours and metallic shimmer (as seen in the Malay brocade songket) is exuberantly transferred onto the screen, but unlike what he actually does for a bride, these stage costumes looked like they were bought off the stalls in Pratunam market in Bangkok, where, as a matter of fact, many struggling Thai drag artists source their elaborate performance wear.

As the costumes often did not appear to fit, it is tempting to assume that Mr Samdin served as a costumer, rather than a designer. One fashion stylist suggested to us that it is possible the movie suffered from a lack of adequate funds for the costumes. As such, not everything can be custom-made. Or, as the maxim of Azni Samdin Bridalwear Designs goes, “first to wear and for you to keep”. There was nothing in the costume for us to keep, in our mind. Sure, we were not expecting Oscar winner for best costume, Priscilla Queen of the Desert (costumed by the talented duo of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner) or the 1978 version of La Cage aux Folles (where it is “a mad extravaganza”), whose Italian costume designer Ambra Danon won the Oscar for the film, but neither did we expect something less spectacular than Roystan Tan’s 2007 getai homage 811, in which the Papaya Sisters held their own in goofy costumes. Nothing is sadder than doing a drag show on a budget.

The “style” of the film is supposedly a reflection of a more local sensibility to better match Mark Lee’s Bengness so that even the Taiwanese can understand. Yet, the hair and makeup are not quite a reflection of the local or Asian drag aesthetic. Using Bangkok (where there is a vibrant drag entertainment industry) as reference again, the costumes of Number 1 are more Bangkok’s Patpong than Pattaya’s Tiffany, where beauty is paramount and where the annual Miss Tiffany’s Universe—the world’s first international drag pageant—is staged. The exaggerated makeup (inverted U shape for brows!) and massive hair, festooned with all manner of accessories and not, take after the over-the-top drag looks of the West: post-Divine, Lady Bunny-fabulous, Wigstock-ready, or a page off the collective visuals of RuPaul’s Drag Race (but definitely not the FX series Pose). The costumes, therefore, sometimes feel like they’re second fiddle to what’s happening from the neck up. An incomplete picture—unfortunately, just like the film.

Movie stills: mm2 Entertainment