`Centrestage' by Sze Jiamin

Singapore films and TV programs should really stop using the word `Centrestage’ for programs involving Chinese opera. Many years ago when I was in primary school, there was a widely watched SBC 8 drama serial called Centrestage in its English translation. The title of this film should really pay tribute to the kids or even name it after the lead actress who played the Chinese Opera lead. This information-packed documentary follows a group of primary school who learn the ropes of performing traditional Teochew opera. From such a premise, one can already foresee the kind of drama that will unfold. Two Teochew opera veterans round up a group of children to take part in this creative experiment. The mission is clear right from the beginning, train them to perform a full-length Chinese opera about this female warrior. The kids go through weeks of literally back- contorting training and rehearsals to put the act together. Since there can’t be any other piece-de-resistance other than final performance, it is natural that this documentary follows a chronological structure. In between the advancements the kids make, are interviews with the kids themselves, the instructors and a middle segment on the history of Chinese opera in Singapore and how it faces an imminent demise. This culminates in the performance day when we follow the kids from the make-up room to the stage.
It must be the narrator’s voice. It was crisp Channel 8 Mandarin at its best. At its worst, it reeks too much of TV. Somehow, together with the editing style and the text used on the screen, it seemed like this documentary received a lot of professional help. It was sleek, smooth and had a commercial veneer to it. A good start for a final-year project I thought. Perhaps after this, they might try more adventurous styles. Even the sizeable chunk on Chinese opera history seemed a little cliché and reminiscent of TV. But, the main body of the content more than engaged everyone. Kids filling adult shoes never fails to create screen magic. And the interviews very skillfully captured the right amount of amusement, innocence, candour and spontaneity from the children. The editing was selective and effective as well. We laughed when the pint-sized female lead groused about the realties behind the scenes. We guffawed when the little boy vividly demostrated his difficulty of sight and discomfort in the middle of the show. And it was just wicked for the editor to intercut between politically-correct answers from the adults and the honest answers from the kids.

The film ends with a sweet and triumphant note that the kids went on to perform in Japan at an arts festival. To me, this had a subtle element of karma in it. For I somehow think, there was a huge amount of coercion (possibly manipulation as well) used on the kids to get them to agree to this project. But, this payoff is definitely, more than sweet.
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