Watched: Cruella

A wicked tale of a baroness and a badass, played by two Emmas. The origin story of the 101 Dalmatians’ not-quite-a-supervillian nemesis and the fashion she dons are, cruelly, one big yawn

Cruella: fully transformed

In writing this post, we find ourselves with a reminder: Cruella is a Disney movie, a fantasy. It is made for kids (or those who identify as one), based on a book for children, published in 1956. It can’t go dark. And it’s never going to be sufficiently authentic to appeal to adults. This is a story of a woman (and to an extent, another) who is not really vilified (at least not in her professional capacity), but misunderstood. As a villainess-in-the-making, she is only detested by one nemesis. And, Cruella could never be that evil, even when she eventually adopted the name de Vil; she has to have a vestige of humanity. So Disney does a backstory, set in the ’70s, to show that innate quality in her, delineated to suit a feminist and woke world. It’s surprising that Maria Grazia Chiuri was not asked to design the costumes. As a film with fashion (would be a stretch to call it a “fashion film”, as some influencers have), Cruella is for fashion neophytes and for fashion-starved times. Or, for watching in the cinema where loungewear rules. It feeds the general belief that the fashion world is buoyed by bitchy designers who can’t deal with competition, and that the big names do not really do any designing (and can’t recognise their designs even if they see one up close); they leave the task to the lesser, long-suffering minions in their staff. And that in order for fashion to be Fashion, it has to be over the top or, as Cruella well knows, your attention won’t be grabbed.

We live in a period when everything happens for a reason and every person has a reason for their un-personable self. People are not by nature rude, unkind, or vicious: they had been traumatised in the past or are presently afflicted with mental health issues. Cruella, like The Joker, has an origin story, but unlike how Batman’s adversary became the madman that he was, the fashion star/antihero’s rise to animal cruelty (as recounted in the original story, anyway) requires complexity added to an otherwise one-dimensional character (even when played by Glenn Close as the villainess in middle age). You did feel pity for He with the Perpetual Smile, but you do not for She with the Pretend Scowl. Consumed by a burning vengefulness that a wuxia underdog of imperial China would relate to, Cruella allows competition and unsettled score to form her cruelty. But she is not depraved enough to make the revenge come to a life-for-a-life showdown. In fact, Cruella does not live up to her wickedly clever name, and Emma Stone as the titular character, with reportedly 47 costumes worn (a veritable collection for small labels), is just hamming it up. What really got to us while watching her was that we were clearly witnessing—again—an American actress speaking British English. But British English isn’t just an accent, it is also how the mouth moves, as well as the facial expression that goes with the verbal. To make Emma Stone sound even worse, they had to pitch her against Emma Thompson! Or is this tale really Mia Dolan’s (La La Land) secret fantasy?

The young Cruella, or Estella, as the improbable fashion-designer-in-waiting

The Baroness (von Hellman), played by Ms Thompson, has been compared to Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada). Both women have a total disdain for the inept and the incompetent, but the Baroness, who’s also a litterer, among her many sins, is decidedly more of a murderess than the latter. As we have often said here, how well people dress—or how fashionably—is no indication of their goodness, kindness, sanity, and respect of social discipline. The Baroness, Estelle, and her implacable dark side use fashion as weapons of dominance and indomitability. Fashionableness can conceal revenge and rage just as it can hide the flaws of the fashion industry—egomania, for one. The echelons of power and the determiners of what is fashionable must not be challenged, only to be feared (not to be mistaken for respected). Even Estella, who is depicted as a better designer than the Baroness, does not go against the later or openly express her disapproval. She had to secretly design in an alley, while pitifully lunching on an apple. Only as the disguised anti-autocrat does she display verve and daring, and a proclivity to dress outrageously to spite the woman she abhors.

Cruella is frame after frame of outfits designed to impress. The fashion press describes Cruella’s costumes as “scene-stealing frocks”, but often times, the cameras don’t dwell on them long enough for the dresses to steal anything, let alone our attention. In Cruella’s first outing as the novice baddie, the Baroness red ‘Flame’ dress (“1965 collection”!) that she wore to draw her target’s necessary attention (apparently inspired by the 1955 Charles James ‘Tree’ dress) barely receives a full shot so that we can appreciate its asymmetric intricacy. Even Estella, not as her enraged fashionista alter ego, did not look particularly ’70s or “the Decade Taste Forgot”, only what Tom Wolfe called the “Me decade”. Her sartorial sensibility and her design approach are decidedly post-’70s. (Concurrently screening, The Conjuring is set in the ’70s and the costumes show it.) In the scene where she bought the Baroness lunch for the first time, Estella wore a draped, asymmetric skirt with criss-cross straps and hardware that immediately brought to mind Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga pants for spring/summer 2022. Two names cited that provided inspiration for the costumes are Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano (the Dior years). Costumer designer Jenny Beavan (A Room with A ViewMad Max: Fury Road) reportedly wanted to pay tribute to British designers of the late ’80s and the ’90s. If they really wanted to salute these British fashion greats, why did they not use either of the two, both of whom are still very much alive and practising? If they needed corsetry and bag-lady glam, why did they not go to the originals? Ms Beaven is not, to use the Baroness’s favourite word, an “incompetent” costumer, but she did not truly wow with what post-war fashion and 21st century audience have not already seen.

Still Estella, the rookie designer

The Baroness in her “fabulous” but dated gowns

Two massive, unwieldy-to-any-villain dresses stood out: a spread-like-a-tent, red and black ruffled number (reportedly 393 meters of organza. With a wide-width fabric, you need about 2 metres to make a dress), worn atop an automobile and the other that came tumbling out of a refuse collection vehicle (what is it about vehicles that lend themselves to Cruella’s dressed-for-revenge drama?). The first, which has a scroll that could be unfurled to reveal the odd, social-media-era (hashtagged?) “PAST”, has been attributed to, among other names, Alexander McQueen. It looks to us something Viktor & Rolf had attempted, even Michael Cinco! The second a corseted top on which supposed newspaper clippings and discarded scraps of fabric (or garments) are stitched on could be homage to John Galliano’s controversial 2000 ‘Homeless’ couture collection for Dior. At that time, the clothes trained the spotlight on a group of people that did not, for a moment, asked for it. Cut to 2021, Cruella’s version no longer provokes anything, even when it emerges from a garbage truck and exited the dramatic unveiling, with with a train that could have been a spill from a homeless person’s bundle. How times have changed!

Estella is a street urchin in the tradition of Oliver Twist’s nemesis Fagin and his young bunch. Like Fagin, she needs to survive—to be in the “business”: pick-pocketing. Even her pet dog (and her wallet-snatching pals’) are trained to be accomplices. But unlike Fagin, Estella is far much better-dressed. She has set up a sewing facility in her lair, and, therefore could design her and her sidekicks’ “fabulous disguises” for their outward-bound enterprise. Estella is never seen actually designing, she only sketches. She is not shown learning to sew in her younger days, or at all, and yet sew she does; she could even stitch together a fitted leather jacket with sleeves in ketupat weave and another with embossed leather. All with a single sewing machine. We do not see her draft a single pattern or cut a piece of cloth, yet we are supposed to believe that she can make, for starters, those work clothes—mostly in black—with rather post-modern details, and un-contemporaneous technical treatments, such as the anomalous placement of seams, or fashion lapels as accessory. Her home-sewing set-up, although later overseen by Artie (her fashion soulmate from one 2nd Time Around store in Portobello) and modestly staffed, can amazingly turn out those gowns that are more fabulous than anything the expansive studio of the Baroness can produce. According to director Craig Gillespie, the Baroness’s atelier is based on archival pictures of Dior’s early Paris workroom, but looks assembled by the set decorators of Lego Masters.

Cruella does punk

Cruella does ‘trash’

And suddenly “Cruella is a new fashion darling”. She has no shop, isn’t supplying to the storied London department store Liberty (where the Baroness’s creations are available and where Estella was a former staffer), and no apparent customers, yet she is an immediate threat to the established and way-wealthier Baroness. The rivalry between the women also underscores the generational divide: the Baroness from the old couture world of rigidity and the constructional possibilities of the tailleur, still seeking her “signature look”, and Cruella from the more seductive art of the flou, as well as a society influenced by punk (never shown, except for a rock concert that served as a fashion show), hell-bent on revenge. As it turns out, Cruella is not only a fashion designer, she’s also a meticulous intrusion and burglary planner, a persuasive recruiter of talent, and a pugilist-fighter, admitting that “wrecking havoc at galas is my personal specialty”. To all that, add a guerilla “revenge” fashion show organiser! Even Wonder Woman isn’t that talented. Diana Prince, when not crime-busting or saving General Steve Trevor, is, at first, an army nurse before becoming an intelligence officer. She has, of course, other occupations, but they don’t show such amazingly varied flair. Even Cruella’s bad and dangerous driving is a talent.

Cruella tries to explain the protagonist’s wickedness, but not why and how the Baroness became a sociopath. The film is seamed together to reflect the current sentiment for young women: you can do anything. Both Cruella and Estella will inspire little girts to dream big. And for dreaming designers to believe that there are short cuts to success, even for a grifter. And the best approach to extolling or embracing fashion, whether a creator or consumer, is to resolutely go beyond the normal. As 2nd Time Around’s Artie said, “Normal is the cruellest insult of all”. Admittedly, we had expectations for Cruella. If we had played that down and not be bothered by the incongruence of the fashion and the revenge as their own stories, perhaps we could have enjoyed the film, even the gowns. But, as the Baroness said, when meeting Cruella for the first time, “nothing to see here”.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Cruella is in cinemas now. Photos: Disney+

A Family Not His Own

Nominated for one of the five best films at this year’s Golden Horse Award, Dear Tenant is a poignant story of familial strain and societal discrimination, made worse by ethical predicament and moral dilemma. There is also the moving performance of the winner for best actor, Mo Tzu-yi

The (still) unconventional family in Dear Tenant. Photo: Filmosa Production/Golden Village Pictures

Before watching Dear Tenant (亲爱的房客), we knew Mark Lee was not going to win the best actor at this year’s Golden Horse Award. After watching the Taiwanese film, we knew exactly why. The movie’s lead Mo Tzu-yi (莫子仪) showed the one thing he could do as actor, and do well: act. Mark Lee, in contrast, was playing Mark Lee; a product of Mediacorp Studios, the eternal pupil of his director pal, Jack Neo. His film Number 1 was awarded the Best Costume prize in what could be a stroke of luck. These two movies, although broach hitherto difficult to express LGBTQ issues, are as different as it is from L to Q or, more specifically, between G and T. Mr Mo’s performance is natural and nuanced, Mr Lee’s one-track and over-the-top. One could tug at heartstrings, the other not.

Despair courses through Dear Tenant like blood in the body, and Mo Tzu-yi’s barely-ever-breaking-a-smile performance belies his character’s quiet suffering. This is not really a dark film, but neither is it dappled with sunshine. For five years, Mr Mo’s Lin Jianyi (林健一), the tenant, takes care of a family of two persons vastly different in age. One is a diabetes-stricken geriatric, the other a fatherless nine-year-old boy. Both are left behind by Lin Jianyi’s lover, the child’s dad, who died during a trekking trip. It isn’t clear what drives the tenant to take on the role of father and caretaker: remorse or responsibility, or both. He goes about his duties almost stoically, teaching his young charge piano and helping with school work and cooking for the elderly woman—played by Chen Shu-fang (陳淑芳) who won the best supporting actress award—and changing the bandage of her unpleasant wound that is likely caused by peripheral artery disease. He himself appears to have no life of his own, except the odd hook-up established through dating apps.

As if Li Jianyi’s circumstances are not heartrending enough, tragedy strikes. He ends up in jail, goes before a public prosecutor and from there, the not-quite-courtroom-drama narrative through flashbacks fills in the blanks of the revelation till that point. The love story of the two men are recounted, the events that led to Li Jianyi’s incarceration are told, but the protagonist’s own background are blocked out. While his pain of loss is understandable, whatever is recalled is not done with burning intensity. The no-rush pacing of the film sometimes feels like it is not going to move further. But perhaps therein lies the appeal of the story: its seeming ordinariness. This is a pingfan (平凡, ordinary) man, living in a too pingfan port area of Kaoshiong (even his deceased lover was a port worker), facing just-as-pingfan homophobia across society and the police force. The prejudices, while not overt (this is modern-day Taiwan, where same-sex marriage is now legal), simmers and the palpability makes it more disquieting.

“If today I were a woman, and my husband died, and I continue to care for his family, would you be asking me the same questions? (如果我今天是个女生,我的先生过世了,我继续照顾他们家,你还会问我一样的问题吗?)” This was asked in a courtroom scene, but Li Jianyi did not do so for pity; he only wanted to know why, he, a pingfan man, would be treated differently. Mo Tzu-yi plays it all with understated control, a bloke’s restraint, to the point that when the tears do come, it feels real and shoots straight for the heart. Director Cheng Yu-chieh (郑有杰) has created a gay-themed movie without any flailing-arm hyperbole. The scenes of the two men up in the mountains may recall 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, yet in its own subtler way, they suggest that homosexual love can stand just as tall. Above all, the dear tenant shows that even a gay man can be a family man and, when duty calls, a father.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Camp Campuran

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

Watched: Mulan

Disney’s live-action Mulan is not as delightful as the animated movie and not engaging as a new version. Why did they bother with blah?

Mulan in full feminine regalia during a battle. Film still: Disney Enterprises

By Ray Zhang

Barely one minute and half into the new Disney film Mulan, I was irritated. The film’s story tellers (four credited scriptwriter were involved) had decided to set the titular character’s home in a tulou (土楼) in China’s southeastern province of Fujian (福建). As far as I am aware, the story of Hua Mulan (花木兰) was set in Northern China, in the Han region, during the Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏), also known as the era of the Tuoba Wei (拓跋魏), between 386 to 534 AD. The distinctive circular Fujian tulou—or earthen buildings—are much later vernacular homes of the Hakka people, believed to have first erected them in the 12th century. Although it has never been clearly established in ancient texts (such as the 12th century’s Ballad of Mulan or 木兰辞) where Mulan (played by China-born American Liu Yifei) was from, she was not known to be of Hakka or even Hokkien descent.

But, here in a lively compound of a tulou, is where we first encounter the girl Mulan chasing a chicken. The suggestion of rural life belied her acrobatic, pre-gongfu skills, never mind that she’s more agile than a domestic fowl. Also here, as a young woman of marriageable age, she was strangely sent to a matchmaker to learn to be, well, a woman of marriageable age, not to learn of a potential suitor. I have no idea why the matchmaker had such high standing in the community that she had to be, as Mulan and her chaperones—mother and sister—seemed, feared. What’s even more curious was how the Hua women had to be ridiculously decked out and made up, just to see the matchmaker, played by the revered Cheng Pei-Pei 郑佩佩, also in similar clown’s (小丑) makeup. It was beyond my comprehension how Ms Cheng could come this far as an actress, known for her breakthrough role as Golden Swallow (金燕子) in the 1966 King Hu (胡金铨) film Come Drink with Me (大醉侠) and the impressive Jade Fox (碧眼狐狸) in Lee An’s (李安) Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龙), to be cast in such a small, silly part that our own Ang Hwee Fang (or Hong Huifang 洪慧芳) could have played with no loss to the latter’s credibility.

The Fujian tulou where Disney decided Mulan lived. Screen grab: Disney+

According to makeup designer, Denise Kum (Captain America), her research into Tang dynasty women’s “ideas of beauty” revealed that makeup was not only the unmissable hua dian (花点, decorative floral dots above the glabella), but also hideous colours such as green eyebrows. But Mulan’s conscription took place during the Northern Wei dynasty, which was some three decades before Tang. Defenders of Ms Kum’s work said that such makeup was popular among the Tang emperors’ concubines. In Disney’s telling, Mulan was the daughter of a crippled army veteran, whose family was installed in a village, where chickens were free to be chased by children. The Huas were nowhere near a royal court. How likely was it that, going to meet a matchmaker against her desire, Mulan would appear before the latter made up as a concubine? Did the meipo (媒婆), too, wished to look like a member of the Emperor’s harem?

Not only was the makeup an affront to ancient Chinese beauty traditions (so unnecessarily heavy-handed that it prompted Mulan to say “the fiercest winter storm could not destroy this makeup”, and that included green brows!), the costume design—by Bina Daigeler (recently, Hulu series Mrs America)—took ancient Chinese sartorial glamour to new heights. As a rural lass, Mulan wore clothes that could be those of the elite class: fancy. She even had an outfit set aside for matchmaking. And armour and helmut ready for battle! The rest of her village folks wore so much colour, only a Pantone chart could offer such coordinated chromatic variety. On the other end of the grandeur scale, the Emperor—unnamed, played by Jet Li—was attired in a strange mianfu (冕服 or ceremonial royal attire): dirty green cocoon shan (衫 or coat), under which the inner garment yi (衣) sported six(!) concentric crossed collars (交领) that appeared to be without the left-over-right youren (右衽) overlapping, making him look unmagestically puny, even when inexplicably bathed in a ray of golden light. Forgive the language, but WTF?

Mulan, dressed extravagantly, to meet the matchmaker. Film still: Disney Enterprises

Chinese Netizens have already pointed out that these are xifu (戏服 or costumes), not hanfu (汉服 or Han clothing). Ms Daigeler couldn’t tell the difference. Since the story largely took place in battlefields (or military camps), the cast wore battle-ready uniforms with plate armours. I am sure military historians would be able to fault what the soldiers wore, but for me, the civilian clothes were the ones that grated on my nerves. Although Ms Daigeler claimed she did “deep research” on Chinese clothing and culture, she also admitted that she did not consult any Chinese professional, relying instead on her Western “intuition”. Predictably, the costumes couldn’t escape the fantasy that a Caucasian is wont to imbue ancient Oriental garments with. There were improbabilities too. After “Hua Jun died”—in the first battle with the bird-witch Xian Lang—and “Mulan lived”, as the narration went, the protagonist shed her military armour to reveal a woman’s yi (top photo) and loosely curled hair worthy of a Dyson Airwrap ad, while riding a horse! And those wide sleeves! How were they practical to wielding swords in a battlefield? Did she, like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, have gender-affirming, fighting clothes on all along as they went to battle? Mulan might be a Chinese folk hero, but Disney forgot she is not a DC Comics superhero.

Then, there was Gong Li, probably the biggest Chinese star the Americans ever knew. I do not know why there was the necessity of a “witch” with Mutant-like, shape-shifting ability in the plot. If the imperial army would not even allow a woman into their military grounds, why would their enemy, the barbaric Rourans (柔然), even with a feared warrior-leader Bori Khan, need the histrionic help of the campy Xian Lang? Ms Li, not dressed in a hanfu, but in what could pass off as neo-Victorian bandit-goth (Snow White’s Evil Queen won’t be envious), with makeup that The Green Hornet’s Kato might have rejected, was essentially reviving her 2016 role as White Bone Demon (白骨精) in Monkey God 2 (西游记之孙悟空三打白骨精), also as shape-shifting, but speaking as Memoir of a Geisha’s Hatsumomo! Her White Bone Demon costume and “I-am-hell-(我就是地狱)” performance were way more fierce, and infinitely better.

Gong Li as a witch knows how to dress glamorously and fight stunningly. Screen grab: Disney+

Mulan is largely a war movie, yet against a setting of violent struggle, the filmmakers saw it necessary to exoticise the telling. Apart from geographical, architectural, and costume irregularities, the film throughout—shot in both China and New Zealand—clearly did not want barren northern Chinese lands to dominate. In the first part of the film, when the witch Xian Lang and the kohled baddie Bori Khan attacked a walled city, I thought I was watching a scene from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This took place somewhere on “The Silk Route, Northeastern China”, according to the film. The Silk Route (丝绸之路) was more than 11,200 kilometres long—a network of roads, stretching from Xian to the Mediterranean Sea. Placing the above scene anywhere on this land trading route, even in the northeast, is artistically lazy. To heightened the Chineseness of the set located away from the war, production designer Grant Major (King Kong) succumbed to the typical angmo idea of Orientalism. When Mulan was about to leave her family to join the army, she was placed in a romantically styled room flanked by red lanterns. Remember, we were supposed to believe she lived in essentially communal quarters. Yet, in a sad and conflicted state, Mulan, we were to be convinced, had time and inclination to light and raise lanterns before sunrise just for her to depart discreetly!

Since this was not strictly a wuxia film (or, at least not in the Louis Cha tradition), the fighting scenes were less about balletic swordplay, fancy footwork, and gravity-defying flying than brute strength, killing in large numbers, and raining of arrows. In fact, the fighting was so uninspiring that a Jacky Chan street brawl would have more going for it. The final showdown took place in an alleyway and construction site! For a reported USD200-million Disney production, the “epic” military attacks in Mulan was not more spectacular than those on less costly Chinese TV series, such as 2017’s The Glory of Tang (唐朝荣耀) or this year’s hit Under the Power (锦衣之下). As for Donnie Yen’s part of the “commanding officer” Commander Tung Yong, the Chinese have a perfect description: 大才小用 (or, making small use of big talent). I couldn’t see how else to describe Commander Tung’s uncommanding presence. Or, sudden appearance to break up a scuffle in an enlistment line (did he not have other junior officers to do that?). Or, showing off gongfu moves as demonstrations, not instructions, to teach enlistees. He sure didn’t teach the wooden Mulan; he didn’t even fight in the battle scenes. He was definitely no 战神赵子龙, god of war Zhao Zilong.

Striking battle formation, but the fighting scenes were lacklustre. Screen grab: Disney+

I found it also hard to digest a beloved Chinese folk tale with dialogue spoken in largely (but uneven) American English. The Hua family of four all spoke with different accents. At her first meeting with Commander Tung, Mulan gave herself a presumably manlier name Hua Jun (花军. It was Ping in the cartoon), which she pronounced as if she was an American on her first day at a putonghua class. Heck, she couldn’t even pronounce the name of her father Hua Zhou (花州). And then, later, threatened with expulsion, she inexplicably said, “I would rather be air-cuted (executed)”, as if there was sng buay (酸梅, preserved plums) in her mouth. While all the dialogues were in English, even the military commands and battle calls, the background soldierly talk was curiously in Mandarin. And when Commander Tung finally had the chance to call Hua Mulan by her real name, he said it in Mandarin too. In fact, the spoken sound of the movie was so oddly inconsistent, and monotonous (especially among the soldiers) that I was beginning to suspect that the film was dubbed. And by Mediacorp!

This year’s Mulan is supposed to be based on the 1998 animation—loosely, as is everything about the film. With a cartoon, you can get away with the crass, the foolish, the inaccurate, the made-up. With actual actors, believability, both cultural and narrative, drives the story. Mulan, the live action, builds on a thin, unimaginative, straightforward plotline, with a Westerner’s definition of the East’s sense of loyalty, bravery, and truth (忠勇真 respectively), as inscribed on the sword of Mulan’s father that she took along with her to fight with. It was a lot of hogwash and it was especially unconvincing when expressed by American filmmakers operating in the shadow of a White House unmoved by the loyal, the brave, and, definitely, the truth. I don’t know if Disney intended Mulan to ingratiate the company with China, now reportedly a larger movie market than the United States. If so, the film’s association with Xinjiang, as seen in the end credits, could be the world-angering ratification.

Two strong women. Only one lives. Guess who? Screen grab: Disney+

Awash with 2020 wokefulness, Mulan also showed that ancient Chinese women (or, perhaps, women in general), even after a gruelling journey through plateaus and mountains, do not smell, but men “stink” (and they snore, for they are such slobs). And Mulan only began to “smell bad” after doing non-stop night guard duty and not bathing. Odoriferous problems aside, pity, too, was necessary as in Mulan’s first night guard duty (which she volunteered to do): it poured. To be sure, Kiwi director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) made it clear from the start of the film that this would be a feminist movie. Mulan, described by her father in the cringing cliche, “a young shoot, all green, unaware of the blade”, could only fight her best, life-saving fight as a woman, not as a man (which would have been disastrous, as her regiment mates and Commander proved so). Even the witch Xian Lang was not inherently evil—she was controlled by the one-dimensional master Bori Khan. A woman is only bad when she’s under the dominance of a man! And when Xian Lang told him of Mulan now leading an army, she was quick to correct him referring to her as a mere “girl”: “a woman”, the witch insisted. And there I was, hearing Christina Aguilera singing, “who is that girl I see/staring back straight at me…”

Hua Mulan is not the only female crossdresser in Chinese folk tales and historical narratives. Women in male drag are, in fact, common in Chinese story telling, especially in wuxia tales. The two China TV series I mentioned earlier, too, have them, and, additionally, women generals. And all of them are well-educated and gongfu-skilled (文武双全, wen wu shuang quan), without the need to depend on or strengthen their ‘chi’ (气)—that metaphysical, already-exploited-in-Kung-Fu-Panda, Force-like power that Mulan possessed and initially grappled with (oh, so did Rey Skywalker). As Commander Tung explained, “The chi pervades the universe and all living things… but only the true will connect deeply with his chi and become a great warrior.” To be true, Mulan had to go back to being female. Thankfully, without the lurid, man-repeller makeup.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Watched: Vivienne Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

The first of two fashion films for this year’s Design Film Festival, Vivienne Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is not a compelling exploration of the designer’s three colourful personae

 

VW 1

Reluctance is no indication of reticence. In the 2018 documentary Vivienne Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, the designer may appear unwilling to open up—“just let me talk, just get it over with,” she told director Lorna Tucker—but she does eventual speak out, the urgency in her voice, although somewhat measured, carries through the film with the same creative consistency of her designs. This is “a woman with a mission”, as she identifies herself, but the documentary does not necessarily state it so expressively.

When it appeared on the big screen last year, VW was announced by the media as a film “Vivienne Westwood doesn’t want you to see”. In a no-nonsense post on the brand’s Twitter account, it was stated that “Lorna Tucker asked to film Vivienne’s activism and followed her around for a couple of years (the film took three to make), but there’s not even 5 minutes of activism in the film”. We didn’t bring a stopwatch into the cinema with us, but the work Ms Westwood has done outside the scope of fashion was captured only in short snatches and provided little that showed her true passion in those causes—environmental was touched on, but political, nary a squeak—that she believes in.

You see, activism does not a compelling movie make. Who wants to see a by-now aged (78), although still-feisty, woman—and a Dame no less, call attention to a controversial issue such as the environmentally problematic practice of fracking (it is doubtful that many in the audience in the Capitol theatre yesterday afternoon knows what that is). Rather, hearing her get all annoyed about a small seam that she claimed she did not ask for and disliked intensely makes for watchable anecdote, one that the audience found so funny that not a small number laughed out, from-the-belly loud.

VW 2

It is, of course, likely that the curious come to watch a documentary about a fashion designer to witness foibles and flare-ups and the fussing over what to many are probably of no consequence, such as the width of a hem. To pander to the audience seeking clichés to confirm and to remind us that the subject is, foremost, a fashion designer with exacting standards, Ms Tucker resorted to those “inside” takes that offer a wink-wink affirmation that the Dame is no different from those who approach their craft with hawk-eye obsession and near-couture habits.

Throw in found footage of past fashion shows (including recognisable models) and a couple of interviews with members of the family and authoritative voices such as Victoria & Albert Museum’s fashion curator, Claire Wilcox, as well as the ’80s TV appearance with host Sue Lawley, who prodded the audience to laugh at Ms Westwood’s tricky-to-grasp clothes (“You design not because they’re witty but because you believe they’re attractive and that they make people more attractive?”) and you have a heady brew of a designer’s dismay and the derision levelled at her.

Ms Tucker seems quite unconcerned about the punk, the icon, nor the activist of her subject, with the three probably coming together at post-production. The spotlight is on Ms Westwood as designer of (outrageous) clothes. To make it an absorbing fashion story, she was sure to throw in the juicy bits already noted in even the scrappiest biography of Ms Westwood: her heels are designed to be so towering that even Naomi Campbell fell walking in them, the hands on the clock fronting her shop Worlds End ticks backwards, and that she went to collect the OBE awarded to her by Queen Elizabeth without wearing panties.

VW 3

Lorna Tucker reportedly knew Vivienne Westwood for five years and spent three making the documentary. Despite all that time, the film was unable to show us what Vivienne Westwood is like as a punk, which, in the guise of a musical movement, shocking attitude, and a social anomaly, Ms Westwood did not originate nor spearhead, as suggested (she and her then-partner Malcom McClaren were active members of the sub-culture, especially through the clothes they sold in the shop Sex). Or, what makes her an icon (Ms Wilcox was filmed showing a piece from ‘Pirate’, but no further elaboration on how this first collection would influence the punk off-shoot, the New Romantics, and that it identified with ’80s artistes such as Duran Duran and Adam Ant). Or, where her activism took her, if it made light of serious issues, or how it influenced her designs (apart from the slogan tees, which, admittedly, were sometimes messy and hackneyed).

Something got in the way of our watching the film. It dawned on us that Ms Tucker, the filmmaker, is a millennial (she’s thirtysomething), who, although was once a model, is not necessarily equipped with the knowledge or depth to go beyond the obvious and the titillating. VW reflects the ethos of Ms Tucker’s generation: the influencer culture and approach to fashion that prefers surface and ‘looks’ than complexity and meaning. Bickering, to her, is artistic temperament that stokes creativity and losing one’s total calm in the presence of international buyers is having a grip on one’s business. All designers, too, are creatures of the heart and considerable reel time is given to failed affairs and inexplicable marriages. There is no attempt at penetrating the layers that make Ms Westwood, just getting under her skin.

One thing has to be said of Vivienne Westwood: few designers (excluding John Galliano) dress as though they are in the business of fashion and the selling of dreams. Or, believe in what they design and peddle. In all her appearances—specifically shot or on video clips, Ms Westwood, even in activism mode, does not dress down, appearing to enjoy the clothes she wears as much as designing then. It’s certainly not the same with the current crop of taste-makers: not Virginie Viard, not Maria Grazia Chiuri.

Stills: Dogwoof

Watched: Crazy Rich Asians

There is wealth and there is fashion. It’s a movie Jack Neo could never make, but is Crazy Rich Asians any good? 

 

CRA P1.jpg

By Mao Shan Wang

I want to like Crazy Rich Asians; I really do (desperately even), if not the crazy part or the rich part, certainly the Asians part. But, I do not. The Kevin Kwan novel-turned-movie is not nearly crazy enough (I did not laugh), not roundly rich enough (what’s with the fake first class of a fake Pacific ASEAN Airlines?), and not closely Asian enough since this is supposedly about Singapore, which is not, to borrow our northern neighbour’s marketing catchphrase, Truly Asia.

This is ultimately an American film, seen through American eyes, written and directed by Americans, and made for Americans, exotica-seeking, Singapore-is-in-China Americans. CRA, as we like to call it here (now, that’s Singaporean—abbreviating a linguistic pastime!), may have spoken to Americans, but it did not say anything to me, the born and bred. According to media reports, it has become the “most successful studio rom-com at the box office in nine years since 2009’s The Proposal” (USD117 million in the US so far, as reported). By now, we also know that it is the first all-Asian-cast Hollywood production in 25 years since 1993’s (predominantly Asian) The Joy Luck Club. 

Do not for a moment think that CRA is anything like The Joy Luck Club, a film on such a different plane, with such an emotional pull that it makes CRA look like a Mediacorp drama on a good day. And, to be sure, Jon M Chu is no Wayne Wang; he wasn’t aiming for a little movie with a lot of heart. It is understandable why CRA’s Asian-ness is now especially appealing in America, the birth place of chopsuey and fortune cookies. Given the United States’ current social issues—inclusivity and cultural appropriation et al, an all-brown cast is a big deal, just as an all-black superhero film recently was. But here in Singapore, and indeed Asia, a film featuring mostly Asians is nothing so new that it is heart-thumping revolutionary. The Americans may not be aware that we have consistently enjoyed Chinese/Asian-centric motion pictures that are not stories about the destitute, such as Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (饮食男女), Ann Hui’s A Simple Life (桃姐), or Feng Xiaogang’s If You are the One (非诚勿扰), just to add a rom-com for good measure. Funnily, many here waited with such bated breath for CRA to open, so much so that Warner Brothers may believe we are as deprived as the Asian-Americans.

CRA P2

Before I go on, a disclaimer: I have never read CRA, the book. Er, to be more specific, I have not read it in its entirety. I apologise; I did judge the book by its corny cover and, with prejudice-stained hands, could not venture beyond the third page of the prologue, set in London (but shot in Penang’s E&O Hotel in the film) in 1986 when cousins Nick Young—then eight—and future fashionista Astrid Leong arrived in a hotel as soaking sods. The cliché of a hotel general manager “over-enunciating every word” and the “Chinese woman”—the formidable Eleanor Young— rejoining “in perfect English” was too much to bear. There was something so bordering on the trite about the opening pages that I found myself longing for, gasp, Catherine Lim!

Still, a movie about how the upper crust of the Lion City lives and loves, and lashes is intriguing enough for me to want to part with the price of a McDonald’s Classic Angus Cheese Meal  to watch it. Imagine, Singapore Tatler page-fillers come to life! Nearly two weeks after CRA opened, the film is still enjoying packed halls, and those who flocked to GV at Plaza Sing, where I chose to go to for my CRA acquaintanceship, did not look one bit like they move in the circle that forms the Young family and clique. Do the wealthy even go to the movies in a cineplex? Not those Crazy Rich Asians!

On the screen that afternoon, the wealthy, for a change, isn’t Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, or anyone so rich they have a second job fighting villains. Nick Young, played by the affable Henry Golding, looks unlike the vilely moneyed son he would normally have been if this were a Channel 8 soap. Nor does he dress or accessorise like one (he and his buddies look like they only go to Kevin Seah). Perhaps he’s so used to all the wealth that he does not have to show it by, say, having money stuffed in a Birkin that is left opened and posted on IG for all to admire. In fact, apart from the suggestion of extreme riches, the prosperous and preposterous bunch in CRA are rather like you and I: jealous, insecure, and needy. The only difference is that we are not targets of private bankers and our front gates are not guarded by Sikh sentries.

CRA P3

While that seems to be a problem for some viewers, who charged that the film shows nothing about the non-affluent among us, it isn’t that terrible to me that there is a story on the big screen about how our one percent live and consume. Jamie Chua would not gripe that Jack Neo does not spotlight her in his films; she makes her own YouTube videos! There’s nothing enviable about the Young clan and their friends and their wealth-protection problems and, frankly, juvenile insecurities and shenanigans. The more I looked at the story line and its telling after the protagonists left New York, the more I saw that this is no different from the slew of spring break movies that are a uniquely American genre. A bachelor party in an inter-modal container of a cargo ship? Only Crazy, Rich, and Bored Americans would think of that!

The Singaporean cast in their dismal dresses doing their obligatory publicity rounds may try to convince us that this film is as much about love as luxury fashion, but those hoping to see a Sex and the City sartorial moment set in this city may be disappointed. Yes, there were quite a lot of clothes (and a walk-in wardrobe Carrie Bradshaw may love), but their ability to influence how Singaporean women dress is doubtful. If what they wore on screen is fashion, they’re irrelevant red carpet femininity that money is attracted to, not taste. The clothes worn on CRA will not cast us in the same light as fashion-forward cities such as Tokyo or Hong Kong. We are, at best, wannabes, if that word is still of popular usage.

Still, we should thank the film-makers for making us appear as a nation of fashionable tribes, with a penchant for tacky, OTT weddings. That’s certain about this film: “truth is not the truth”, to quote Rudy Giuliani. New Yorker Rachel Chu, played by the plain-looking Constance Wu, has no fashion sense despite living and working in a hub city with a major fashion week. She comes to Singapore seeking not sartorial rectitude, but potential in-law approval, and yet she is willing to be dressed by her loud—in more ways than one—university mate. Goh Peik Lin, played by the bawdy Awkwafina, has, at best, dubious taste, yet Rachel could trust, without question, her royal flashiness to style her to meet the Young family for the first time, in a dress that showed off her lack of mammary assets?

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To confirm that the weather of Singapore is no friend of sleeves, Rachel Chu wore mostly Forever 21-looking dresses that do not cover the arms. In fact, many of the women she meets are similarly dressed. The only character that lives up to her fashion goddess reputation, as per the book, is Astrid Leong. Played by the lithe British-Hong Kong actress Gemma Chan, Nick Young’s chic cousin glide through the film as if she was born to wear those clothes. Our Singaporean actresses, on the other hand, try so hard not to be heard as heartlanders and not to carry themselves like a housing estate dweller that they neither sound posh nor look loaded. Could it be because they have never played characters in couture? Their lack of appeal—forget about poshness—is compounded by the absence of subtlety in their performance, the lack of meaningful dialogue, and the utterance of appalling dialects.

I wonder, as I write this, if the story would have worked better by shifting the action to New York instead, with the Youngs and their coterie going West to visit Nick and Rachel, wintering in the Big Apple, perhaps. But then the American audience would not get to see a Singapore in such stirring light! The token shots of Singapore’s tourist hot spots may help with the tourism board’s KPI, but it barely showed the city state beyond what it wants visitors to see, never mind that jiaozi is not our culinary highlight and there are no mahjong palours here, not legal ones or in Ann Siang Hill, nor any place that resembles the Cheong Fatt Tze—also known as the Blue—Mansion in Penang. Malaysia is where they shot the palatial Young residences, which, together with the Malaysian leading man and costume consultants, allowed our Equanimity-rejecting neighbour to gloat that without their handsome resources, Singapore would not be able to appear enviably upper class and exaggeratedly genteel.

While this was still turning out to be a massive coup for STB, Mindef quickly threw red wine on the former’s shirt, as Rachel did on Nick’s, by announcing a day after the glamourous Singaporean premiere that author Kevin Kwan is a potential fugitive for not honouring his national service obligations, which quickly became an international headline. I was befuddled. Why was Mindef such a wet blanket? Could they not have waited until the film’s popularity waned (they said nothing when the book hit the New York Times bestseller list)? Or were there officials at each side not talking? I don’t know—maybe this, as with Crazy Rich Asians, was simply Passion Made Possible.

Film stills: Warner Bros

Not The Wonder Years

It’s tempting to dismiss Wonder Boy as a vanity project, and many have submitted to the temptation, but Dick Lee’s debut film is homage to self, as well as a dare-to-reveal look at a surprisingly more uninhibited time

 

Kheng as LeeBenjamin Kheng as Dick Lee

By Raiment Young

Some people not only grew up to the music of Dick Lee, they had actually lived the world of Singapore’s most recognisable songster. I often hear of those whose lives have somehow crossed path with the man who dabbled in many things creative or, as it was known in Mr Lee’s heyday, “lifestyle”. There are those who had actually worked with him; there are those who had, through supplying the stuff he needed for his work, interfaced with him; and there are those who had co-conspired with him in his many schemes that had impacted the fashion, modeling, and music scenes of Singapore, not to mention, our national psyche.

Many of those that are connected to him, even loosely, have stories to tell of Dick Lee, and are curious to see if Wonder Boy contains any narrative that will match theirs. Unfortunately for them, this is not a recount of Mr Lee’s successful decades, or the unveiling of the backstory to Home. This is a filmic memoir of three of his teenage years, before and after a family tragedy, and the events leading to the release of the 1973 album Life Story, his first long-playing vinyl. This is not an account of Dick Lee the fashion impresario who created the ’80s retail experiment Hemispheres or the music lover/writer who became the Mad Chinaman in 1989. This is, disappointingly, a prosaic telling of not an untypical teenager struggling with the loneliness of wanting to break free—from parental expectations and the musical tastes of an era that weighed heavily on him.

The Wonder Boy film still 1Dick Lee’s first pop group known in the film as The Wonder Boys

This is a film with music

It is not unsurprising that you would think this movie to be a musical. But it is not. A Dick Lee film without songs is, I suppose, like fried rice without egg. So, there is more than an opening track, but the songs—mainly those from his breakout album Life Story—do not string the narrative with emotional heft or arouse feelings to let the spirit soar, as the Mamas and Papas tunes did for the 1996 British film Beautiful Thing.

Life Story is the first record Mr Lee released after being discovered while singing the song at Ready, Steady, Folk, a talent contest organised by the cable radio service Rediffusion in 1973. That the album should form the basis of the film is ironic as Mr Lee had told his Japanese audience during the Orientalism tour of 1992 that it was a “very, very, very bad, bad record—bad”. Although, to be honest, I have not heard the original press of Life Story, I do not consider the songs, while catchy, emotionally reflective enough to soundtrack an autobiographical film.

The Wonder Boy film still 2Dick Lee (seated) and sister Pat (left) perform for friends

The result is a loose pastiche of tracks that I suspect will arouse the memories of those old enough to recall them. That, however, may pose a problem: those old enough—Mr Lee’s contemporaries—are not the movie goers they once were. Those who can sing along to Fried Rice Paradise are most likely Gen Xers who remember it as title song from the eponymous musical (1991) than a track from Mr Lee’s debut LP (1974). In fact, many people did not have a TV set at that time, and were not audience to the songs that Mr Lee had performed during the Talentime series of 1973, when he appeared not as contestant, but “guest artiste”. If the songs are intended for a new generation of film fans—as I think they are, they sound terribly kitschy, with a musicality that went the way of Bugis Street.

Perhaps that explains why Home, written in 1998 when Mr Lee was in Hong Kong as regional VP of artiste and repertoire for Sony Music Asia, was inevitably sung at the end of the film, the way artistes promoting new songs tend to finish with something familiar, something that the audience can sing to. I was rather surprised that Mr Lee wrote no new material (rather, they are, according to the man himself, “music that has never been released to the public before”) or a love theme (there are love songs, but not in the tradition of, say, Where Do I Begin from 1970’s Love Story, with the specificity of the film’s story line) considering that love, in its many guises, feature strongly in the Wonder Boy.

Wonder Boy film still 3Party wear in 1972?

This is a film with fashion

The ’70s is a decade that can be easily exploited for visual shiok but Wonder Boy fell disappointingly short. Flower power was impotent, flares inconspicuously represented. It may have been “the decade taste forgot”, but the ’70s was, by many accounts—no less Mr Lee’s own—a colourful era, easy to ape for the big screen. In his autobiography, Dick Lee: The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman, Mr Lee admits to being a fashion plate from young: “started to notice clothes—how they were constructed, what colours they were in, what trends of the moment were” from age 11, and, at 13, “was the best-dressed boy in town with… a floral shirt”.

According to his description of the era, “youth culture was very adult-oriented. For example, we dressed like adults; the guys in fitted shirts with huge collars, worn with high-waisted flares, and the girls in elegant dresses and stiletto heels.” Being the truly fashion-conscious teen that he was, “a typical night out” would see him wearing his “favourite Swiss voile shirt in a green floral print, with an enormous Peter Pan collar. This would be tucked into my brown Oxford Bags, coming up to above my navel and with hems wide enough to accommodate shoe boxes”. Oddly, picking out clothes, getting dressed, and preening were not worked into the script.

Wonder Boy film still 4Indistinctive fashion of the film. The cold shoulder (second from left) is a little disconcerting

Few of those florid attire and exaggerated shapes appeared in Wonder Boy. The silhouettes were disconcertingly current. Costume designer Daniel Goh, former editor of Style magazine and an on-and-off stylist, seems remiss in his research for the film. I want to think differently, but it is not unreasonable to assume that he had picked most of the clothes from H&M and Forever 21, or such (City Plaza, a friend suggested), save, perhaps, for the lead characters. A major party scene saw attendees dressed in outfits teenagers today could see themselves wear. The tight shirts and their accompanying huge collars did not stand out; neither did flares, let alone Oxford Bags. The girls (with today’s brows!) wore printed dresses with a natural waist, but they could be any dress you will encounter in the MRT trains today.

The lack of attention to detail is especially glaring in the choice of brassiere in a seduction scene in which Julie Tan, playing a moral-dubious girl called Linda, who chain-smoked in school uniform, descended on Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee. The close-up of Ms Tan’s upper body not only revealed her not-so-ample assets, but a bra that could have been picked from Wacoal’s Une Nana Cool line, conceived in 2001 for young girls, rather than a Triumph Lycra/nylon, pre-Sloggi bra of the ’70s that reflected the youth and sexual freedom of that time. I’m sure if asked, Triumph International will gladly loan an era-correct bra from their archive or make one for Ms Tan to wear. If not, there are always the many photos of Guy Bourdin.

Detail was overlooked too in the scene when Dick Lee had a fight and then made-up with his sister Pat: he was wearing a striped, long-sleeved ringer tee, and a pair of bright blue flares with patch-pockets—the zip opened from the left! Is the fly detail to bear out the not-in-the-film fact that Mr Lee spent an inordinate amount of time fashion shopping with mom Elisabeth Lee in his pre-teen and teenage years, and “had to look as trendy as my mother”? Did he borrow her slacks?

Wonder Boy film still 5Dick Lee and his mother Elisabeth in their living room

This is a film with (foreign) locations

Much, if not most, of Wonder Boy was filmed in Penang—hardly a surprising location since Singapore of the ’70s is no longer evident, and the film’s S$1.3 million budget is not large enough to build a set that can depict 6½ Mile Bukit Timah Road, or Binjai Park to those in the know, where Dick Lee’s family home is situated, and St Joseph Institution (SJI) on Bras Basah Road, where he went to school for ‘O’ Levels.

The Lee home in the film appears to be a large house, but not as bungalow-like as those in Binjai Park are (including his cousins’—actors Lim Kay Tong and Lim Kay Siu—house), and much of the action took place in a living room that, according to Mr Lee in a behind-the-scenes publicity video, looks like the room he knew well. But the large grounds on which the house sat appeared only in a flash, and were referred to by Julie Tan’s character Linda, without the camera taking the audience there. The macramé pot hangers in the dining area, I thought, were a nice, evocative touch. The sum effect, however, was a home that could be anywhere in Singapore and the Malay Peninsular rather than the exclusive residential greenery not far from the rail corridor’s truss bridge that stretches across Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads.

Wonder Boy film still 6Classroom scene in Penang Free School

A good deal of the retro-coloured scenes was filmed in a school setting. Mr Lee went to St Joseph Institution for his secondary education, but in the film, the school is known as St Peter’s (could it be because he did not want to further upset his alma mater with insinuation that illicit shenanigans took place in the school compound?). The school of choice for the film is the very secular Penang Free School. PFS, which celebrated their 200th anniversary last year, is the oldest English-medium school in Southeast Asia. Students are known as Frees, and these include Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singapore’s first chief justice Wee Chong Jin. Interestingly, Mr Lee’s great-grandfather Lee Keng Kiat, a Penangite, went to the Catholic institution, St Xavier’s, PFS’s long-time archrival.

But it was PFS rather than the younger St Xavier’s that was picked, which suggests that the colonial architecture of the PFS building came to represent SJI rather than its religious leaning. Still, SJI’s distinctive crescent-shape front was not shown since PFS has a linear façade. Those who have been to SJI before it became the Singapore Art Museum also noted that the school did not have windows and doors painted in blue, and the hall/auditorium seemed a tad small. SJI in Bras Basah may only be a part of our faded memory now, but the school and the bus stop outside it (don’t expect to see the row of book and sporting goods shops that was very much a part of that area then) in the film did not look or feel like it is in the heart of the fast-modernising Lion City.

Wonder Boy film still 7Dick Lee with Louise who persuades him not to give up

This is a film with heart

I thought it would be. I saw the film twice: in the first viewing, I was not able to establish an emotional connect with it. In the second, I found myself finding its faults. The film, in many ways, is like Dick Lee’s songs—it draws you in, but leaves you not feeling. It has the colour and the vim (interestingly, not the camp), but once you leave the cinema, it does not stay with you, not even until the bus-stop. To be fair, Dick Lee appeared to have put in his darnest best, like he did for the National Day Parade in 2015, but do you remember NDP50?

Personally, what may have worked against it is the familiarity of the story. Mr Lee is fond of recalling his child-hood days in his concerts, and Wonder Boy feels like a replay of that unabashed conceit. Like those stage performances, the film is short of subtlety and shade—nuances not exactly Mr Lee’s lodestar. At times, I thought I saw bits of MediaCorp’s Growing Up even when I think he was gunning for the late Yasmin Ahmad’s storytelling, particularly Talentime (2009), a film of considerable emotional depth, and the title, coincidentally (?) Wonder Boy’s recurring theme. A comment in Letterboxd was unmistakable about Ms Ahmad’s skills at tugging at heartstrings: “Its 3am and I have the OST of this movie on loop while tears stroll down my face.” For me, I still get goose bumps when I hear Go sung by Mohd Syafie Naswip as the good Muslim boy Hafiz.

Kheng as Lee pic 2Benjamin Kheng’s geeky Dick Lee

As a first-time film maker, it would be aiming too high to scale the height Ms Ahmad had reached, just as it was when Mr Lee, as a school boy, aimed for Elton John’s musical sophistication. Rather, I see Jack Neo’s grassroots anguish (co-director Daniel Yam’s part?) set instead in upper-middle class surroundings, with the protagonists going about the way the chief director remembers things to be. Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee with bad hair plays it one note shy of over-the-top (or is it just teenage angst?). While, from certain angles, he has the boyish charm of the young Dick Lee, there’s an impishness about the pop singer that he was not able to portray. In contrast, the ill-casted Julie Tan as sex-bait Linda has the emotional range of teak. A surprisingly more striking and believable performance was from Zachary Ibrahim as Marc de Souza, the band mate with a tortured background and testosterone-charging, machismo-pushing anxiety.

As far as authenticity goes, the Wonder Boys was really Harmony, Dick Lee’s first band that he did not form and that predated Dick and the Gang, a group that he did form, comprising Mr Lee and his siblings, much like Jackson 5 or the Osmonds (it is rather odd that the younger brothers have virtually no speaking parts in the film even when John Lee would later play a crucial role as arranger of many of his pop-star brother’s songs). I am not sure why Harmony could not retain its original name. Perhaps the founding members did not agree to it. The Wonder Boys is really too similar to The Wonders in the Tom Hanks-directed That Thing You Do!, with none of the latter’s root-for-the-underdog energy. Which makes one wonder if, in our era of fake news, this is a fake biopic.

Film stills: YouTube/MM2 Entertainment, Bert Films and Dick Lee Asia

The Quiet Master

Film | In a new untitled documentary, the fashion insider’s designer Azzedine Alaïa is revealed, but only just

Azzedine AlaiaAzzedine Alaïa at his drafting table. Photo: Joe McKenna/Consulate Film

There are designers and there are designers, but none so unconcerned with the drama of the fashion world and its pursuit of excess as Azzedine Alaïa. His refusal to genuflect to the fashion system, whether in Paris or elsewhere, sticking to his own world in his atelier in the Marais, a historic part of the capital in the 4th and 5th arrondissement, makes him as much a mystery as a marvel.

In this new, 26-minute, black and white short made by the Scottish stylist Joe McKenna, considered one of the most respected in the business, who once published his own now-very-collectible and hard-to-find, two-issue (1992 and 1998) magazine called Joe’s, Mr Alaïa is put in the spotlight, but it is friends, models, journalists who are doing the shining. Filmed over a few years in the designer’s atelier during Mr McKenna’s free time, the film feels like an extended trailer than a major oeuvre, snap shot than biography.

Yet, it’s a pleasurable film, if only because there is no moving picture material out there on Mr Alaïa. Any reveal is better than none. Much has been said of the designer’s skill—how he drafts and cuts his own patterns, how, at one time, he even sewed the dresses himself—and why those who wear his designs become life-long fans, but very little is offered about the processes behind those undeniably beautiful clothes, or about the thinking of a quietly defiant man. In this respect, we still know very little of Mr Alaïa’s motivation and inspiration.

Azzedine Alaïa Couture 2011Two of the outfits from the couture 2011 show that appeared in the film. Photos: Azzedine Alaïa

Although the lens trails its subject, the camera does not capture Mr Alaïa saying anything to it. Instead, designer Nicholas Ghesquiere (the only male interviewee), stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele (who styled Anna Wintour’s first US Vogue cover in 1988 that saw a Christian Lacroix couture top paired with jeans), the ex-stylist, ex-fashion editor (British Tatler and Vogue), and now architect Sophie Hicks, still-practising stylists Grace Coddington and Katie Grand, journalists Cathy Horyn, Vanessa Friedman, and Suzy Menkes, and models Naomi Campbell (who calls Mr Alaïa “papa”) and Veronica Webb do the talking.

These are people who doubtlessly and ardently admire him and are intensely protective. Ms Campbell even revealed that Mr Alaïa took her in after she lost her possessions during a sojourn in Paris in 1989, and that he still avails a room in his residence to her. Although we’re told that Mr Alaïa “has a temper”, like many passionate artists, we’re not shown an instance other than his throwing a hanger at an assistant, when he lost composure to rage. Or, if fury or self-control has influenced his designs. Through these intimates, we are seduced into believing Mr Alaïa has no shortcoming.

This is a film strictly for followers of Mr Alaïa’s work—a celebration of the female form and an extolment of sexiness with none of the perverse expression seen in fashion today. It is also for fashion culture buffs who may be thrilled to see some rare footages of old Azzedine Alaïa shows (“another echelon” for Cathy Horyn)  in which supermodels of the ’90s gravitated (somewhere in there is also the now-reclusive Grace Jones). It sometimes feels like a knowing nod among friends for more friends rather than a vivid disclosure for the uninitiated, of the man and his creative output. And a substantiation of the already known fact that very much of Azzedine Alaïa’s designs start at the drafting table—a mark of a true couturier.

Watched: Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker and The First Monday In May

Last week, two fashion films were screened at the Capitol Theatre as part of A Design Film Festival Singapore 2016. Both were as different as blouse and skirt even if they were, ultimately, about creative clothes

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By Mao Shan Wang

It is to be expected that at screenings of films about fashion, there would be more fashion students than industry folks. It is no different when Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker was shown recently. That is, of course, a good thing since it is often said that the young are learning from fast channels and what’s shared such as on social media than from long-form communications such as books and film. However, at the end of the screening, I wondered if the students were more daunted than motivated.

Part biography, part philosophical musing, Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is a documentary that will crush the dreams of design students. Not long into the film, Mr Yamamoto extols the virtues of working and gaining experience, rather than fame. “After graduation from art school,” he said, “you cannot be creative. No, no, it’s impossible.” This is, of course, not a new refrain. Similar to what he told Business of Fashion’s Imran Amedin in May this year, “When I speak with young designers, I tell them, ‘Shut your computer, don’t look at the computer… if you really want to see real beauty, you have to go there by walking. Go there and touch it and smell it. Don’t use the computer. Otherwise, you won’t get real emotion.”

I am not sure if watching Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is an emotional experience for my fellow film goers, many of whom could not tear away from their smartphone—the handheld computer—during the screening, but it was for me. “Creation is life’s work; creation is how you spend your life,” says Mr Yamamoto in his characteristically slow and deep voice—not unlike a monk’s. “You cannot divide life and creation; it’s impossible.”

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Yohji Yamamoto examining the movement of a skirt during a fitting

Such is his certainty: the indivisibility of not just life and creation, but of conviction and craft, hand and fabric, eye and form. It’s like how some people can’t split love and marriage. In the film, you repeatedly see Mr Yamamoto squat during fittings to study his designs, especially of skirts and pants. A lesser designer might consider that an ungainly stance, but not Mr Yamamoto. The fitting sessions, in fact, truly shows the designer’s skill and mettle. It is here, where he is sometimes half-hidden behind a standing mirror, sometimes hunkered down as the fit models walk past, that I see a createur truly concerned with the 360-degree view and fall of clothes. His designs, from every angle, have to be perfect.

Perfection, I have often been told by design lecturers, is something students today do no pursue. The young are only keen on following fashion, to produce some semblance of fashion, not the epitome of it. Mr Yamamoto once said, in the 2011 documentary This Is My Dream, “I’m not interested in fashion generally; I’m interested in how to cut the clothing—dressmaking, clothing-making.” With computer-aided designs embraced by both designers and manufacturers, the rigours and the creativity behind dressmaking may be lost… forever. It is, therefore, heartfelt to see a designer working in the traditional sense of ‘designing’.

So much of what is shown at work is away from the digital realm, or at least the film does not dwell on the dependence on software and the like. This deep passion for craft enthralls if only because it seems so removed from our present world. Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker isn’t a fashion film in the vein of those that seek to glorify the visual excesses of over-the-top designers. The close-ups of Mr Yamamoto working tug at your heartstrings.  To paraphrase Tom Ford, who said in the 2015 documentary series Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind, “you can feel rather than think.”

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From left, Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton, and ex Mrs Murdoch, Wendy Deng

In contrast, The First Monday In May is about the dazzle and the glamour of New York’s major fashion spring event, the Met Ball. At the same time, it spotlights the one woman who pulls the two together—Anna Wintour. At the start of the film, she’s shown, in Chanel couture, with her back to the camera—drawing attention to her very creased elbow—before turning around in slow-mo like a movie star at a movie opening. Is the by-now over-exposed American Vogue’s honcho still so fascinating that she merits a film camera trailing her?

Sure, there’s a lot of the behind-the-scene toil, but even that seems glamorous. I am not sure if this documentary is really about the Met Gala (specifically last year’s China: Through the Looking Glass that shows Chinese culture’s influence on Western fashion), one night hailed by Andre Leon Tally as “the Super Bowl of social fashion events” or the glorification of an editor who has, like Diana Vreeland in the 1970s, positioned herself as the sole instigator of fashion as museum spectacle. Ms Wintour has not only made hers a notch more memorable (and deserving of a documentary); she has made them climb onto the category ‘blockbuster’.

the-first-monday-in-may-pic-2Andrew Bolton making last-minute adjustments to an Alexander McQueen dress before the start of the show

The film may have benefitted from the gravitas of Andrew Bolton, the Thom Browne-clad head curator of the Metropolitan of Art’s Costume Institute, but it still can’t escape from being fluff. Is it surprising, for instance, that Ms Wintour and her crew would have had a frustrating time confirming the guest list or seating those invited? Is it enlightening that an event of this scale would have experienced technical and logistical hiccups? Is it eye-opening to know that Rihanna would have cost a fortune if you wanted her to attend and sing? Who’s not aware: the audience or one of Ms Wintour’s bimbo-minions who said, “We can’t lose her, right? We just didn’t realise how expensive”?

What’s revealing, though, is that Ms Wintour is less attuned to the world outside fashion than we think. When she made a fuss about shifting a column to accommodate the tables she wanted and commented that “it’s only a column”, she had to be corrected by a museum staffer: “It’s a Tiffany column.” Is toughness an impenetrable façade to conceal the indolence of the mind? The First Monday In May is as much a celebration of clothes as getting as many glamourous, veneered people in one room to lend credence to the otherwise under-rated art of dressmaking. However strong the glamour factor, it isn’t moving.

Photo (top): Jim Sim. Film stills courtesy of respective film makers and producers, as well as A Design Film Festival