- RatedPG /GenreDrama
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Royston Tan is really on a winning streak this year. Fresh from delivering the highly acclaimed ‘7 Letters’ anthology to celebrate SG50, he is now back with his latest feature ‘3688’.
The number seven pops up again as it has been seven long years since the release of his last commercial movie in cinemas.
Judging by the early positive buzz and anticipation that the film has been gathering, it is worth the wait.
Continuing the trend to feature numbers in his film titles, ‘3688’ is closer in spirit and form with the commercially successful and crowd pleasing musical melodrama ‘881’ and ‘12 Lotus’ rather than his earlier indie works ‘15’ and ‘4:30’.
The leading heroine of the story Xia Fei Fei, played by Mando-pop singer Joi Chua in an auspicious acting debut, works as a parking attendant aka “summon aunties”, who have to prowl public carparks to issue tickets for parking violations.
The parking attendants in retro Singapore have to work long hours in the open sun, hence they tend to wear their signature hats or headgears, which give them another Chinese moniker – ‘Fong Fei Fei', an allusion to the late Taiwanese diva songstress, who is otherwise known as the “Queen of hats” for donning different headgear every performance.
Whenever the hats of the parking attendants are spotted from afar, people at the local coffee-shops will holler “Fong Fei Fei is here! Summon Aunty is here” to alert everyone to put their parking coupons or risk being slap with a fine.
Chua’s Fei Fei is a good nature and kind soul who always ‘give chance’ to the errant drivers. This makes her well liked among the taxi drivers and people in the local community.
She is also the biggest fan of Fong Fei Fei, the diva. In a high school flashback played by rising getai star Lee Pei Ying, Fei Fei took part in a high school talent singing competition performing one of Fong’s upbeat numbers, aided by her two childhood buddies – Maoshan and Fei Xiang, again two names that are allude to Taiwanese singers from the late ‘70s era.
Fei Fei also takes care of her father “Uncle Radio”, a former Rediffusion radio salesman who is suffering from dementia. She however is not alone in facing her challenges as she is supported by Maoshan (played by Mediacorp veteran Brandon Wong) and her friends at the neighbourhood coffeeshop – the mother and son duo Ah Luan (Liu Ling Ling) and Yoyo (Shigga Shay).
As her father’s mental state deteriorates, and automated carpark gantries have taken over the jobs of the Summon Aunties, Fei Fei decides to return to the stage to perform in a singing competition for the prize money, and to realise her life-long dream of becoming a singer.
LOOSE NARRATIVE STRUCTURE
The film provides plenty of laughs, mostly supplied by Liu Ling Ling and Shigga Shay, who is making his acting debut.
Ling Ling’s character Ah Luan has an alter ego – Lady Kaka (Lady Gaga, get it?) as she appears brazenly in a different costume getup made from everyday items.
Shigga Shay does what he does best by rapping his way through the film. Two scenes in particular stands out – Shigga rapping a long list of drinks order that ended up being his latest hit single ‘Ta Pau’, and him rapping the milestones of the late Fong and her appearances in Singapore in the past three decades.
Coupled with the stage performances of Chua at the singing competition belting out Fong’s evergreen classics, and the tender moments between her and veteran theatre actor Michael Tan who played the dementia suffering father, these performances are among the highlights of the film’s winning moments.
Now for the lowdown. The first half of the film is hampered by a very loose unstructured narrative, which spends too much time setting up various characters and subplots that are not essential or even relevant to the main story.
Joi Chua in '3688' | Photo: GV
In fact, the main story of father and daughter and their remembrance of Fong don’t kick in until the film is way past the one-hour mark, when Fei Fei finally took part in the singing competition.
Veteran singer-actress Rahimah Rahim and her four sidekick parking attendants, designed as comic relief characters, contribute little to the plot and take up too much screen time with their over the top and cringe worthy antics.
Even the showdown between Rahimah and the loud mouth Liu was a little tame and fizzled out before it even gets hot.
The movie does touch lightly on the theme of requited love, but its slight execution left us hanging without going any deeper.
Another supporting character Anita (played by getai singer Tan Bee Keow) is supposed to be the main rival against Fei Fei in the singing competition.
Despite Tan’s vocal prowess and stage presence, her character ended being more like a caricature with little setup to build the rivalry.
This is the first film that Royston works with a co-screenplay writer Wei Lim. One wonders whether a lot of scenes have been edited from the original script, which seem to setup much more than what has transpired in the final cut.
FITTING TRIBUTE TO FONG FEI FEI AND A BYGONE ERA
Nevertheless, the emotional pathos from the dramatic scenes of family love have shown Royston to be a more mature director since his ‘881’ days, and he has the ability to draw audiences into the heart of the story without resorting to over sentimentality or intense melodrama.
Even though Michael Tan’s Uncle Radio character is suffering from dementia, he still couldn’t let go of his Rediffusion radio set, nor his love for his late wife (played by another veteran actress Lin Meijiao).
Michael Tan and Lin Meijiao in '3688' | Photo: GV
Echoing a theme that was explored in ‘881’, both husband and wife reunites in a surreal dance sequence triggered by the music of Fong Fei Fei, as Royston paints the scene beautifully and softly and with tender loving care.
The biggest discovery has to be Chua, who is very natural in front of the camera in her big screen debut.
Not only does she put on her ‘A’ game in performing Fong’s songs (which according to Royston) some of which were recorded ‘live’ on stage, Chua also delivers the dramatic scenes very well, especially those quiet moments with her father.
Besides paying a fitting homage to the late songstress Fong Fei Fei and the legacy of her music and her indomitable spirit, the film is also a loving and sometimes fun tribute to a bygone era in Singapore, of Summon Aunties, Dakota Crescent, and Rediffusion radio.
Even though our heart may ache for nostalgia and our lost loved ones, the key message from the film is, if we truly love something or someone, they will forever be etched in our hearts, and won’t be forgotten.
The same can certainly be said of Fong Fei Fei and her evergreen classics.
‘3688’ is now showing