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Singaporean cinematic auteur wows audiences at SOM

Collectors881i“The first chapter of my pitiful life,” goes the getai, or boisterous live performance, song “Lotus Flower,” “Born into a red-light district and life is hard / Life is terrible and I’m in a bad state / I have to slog hard to eke out a living.”

These words capture the melodramatic world of Royston Tan’s “881,” a film which was screened September 30 by the Asian Arts and Culture Program as a part of their New Asian Cinema series. University of Massachusetts students and Amherst community members alike were entertained by this film’s lively combination of musical, comedic and over-the-top melodramatic elements, all of which worked to form a very alive whole. Following an introduction by event curator Anne Ciecko, the audience relaxed in their seats for the competitive world of getai in Royston Tan’s “881.”

“The second chapter of my pitiful life / My life is hard and my heart hurts / My stepmother did not take me into consideration / She only wanted to marry for a meal ticket / Oh how sad, oh how pitiful my life is”

The joyful, catchy melody that drives this song has substantially more in common with the tone of the film than it does with the mournful lyrics. We are told the tale of the Papaya Sisters – who aren’t actually sisters. Big Papaya was the valedictorian at her school; Little Papaya is an orphan with cancer who sells papayas at the market.

The two meet at a getai performance, and both discover they have the same dream: to be the top getai performers of all time. They move in with a portly woman that they call Aunty Ling and her mute son, Guan Yin. Unfortunately, they lack the one thing every good getai group needs: Feel.

For the sake of the Feel, they go to the twin sister of Aunty Ling, also known as the Goddess of Getai. It is at this point that they are bound by an oath of chastity in exchange for Feel. Immediately afterwards, they become immensely popular; however, their troubles aren’t over yet. With a rival singing group, Big Papaya’s infatuation with Guan Yin, and Little Papaya’s sickness, audience members are treated to a veritable buffet of melodramatic delights. The story seems to have been crafted from the same source material which fuels the getai songs sung throughout the film.

Getai is an event which occurs every year at the seventh lunar month, during the Singaporean Ghost Festival. Essentially, a group of performers sing upbeat-sounding songs with melodramatic lyrics to entertain the spirits. There are a wide variety of extravagant costumes and brightly colored lights. Although it could be argued that the tone of the film is rather uneven, “881’s” alternately joyful and mournful tones perfectly capture the spirit of the event.

Any flaws the film may have contained were overshadowed by the fact that those who chose to spend their Wednesday night watching “881” were given a glimpse into a world that, for most, was previously a complete mystery.

The Asian Art & Culture Program’s New Asia Cinema series will continue to screen films at the Flavin Family Auditorium until December 2, without any charge for admission.

Mark Schiffer can be reached at

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