Lotus Roots Soup - too rich for stomach

There are so many ways you can see Royston Tan's latest Chingay. You can call it a traditional Cantonese tear-jerker like what the Straits Times has called it. You can call it 881-redux. You can call it Money Not Enough 2.5 for the heinous ways money manipulates humans. You can see it in two parts - the first half, a rivetting expose of a the brutality behind a singer's life; the second half - faces of madness and an Ah Kua. Or perhaps the way I like it - Lotus Roots Soup. Lotus Roots Soup is packed with richness. It has the quintessential lotus roots which is delicious but comes with plenty of holes. The pork cubes lend muscle to the flavour and in between there is a lot of little unidentifiable ingredients which if your mum threw in bull penises, you would not even notice. And it is at moments tasty and at other times bland as well. Like tonic soup, 12 Lotus unravels layers of flavours to treat the senses. It occasionally turns bitter and even bland. But for some funny reason, it left me an aftertaste, an sense of appreciation for the character. Like how your mother will always say tonic soup is good or this and that but you see none of it at the point of drinking it.
12 Lotus is Royston Tan's last attempt to portray the getai singers' lives. Like 881 there is the expected Hokkien song and dance buffet with exaggerated costumes. But unlike 881, there is more of a point to the story this time - an autobiography. Also, the storytelling follows a more traditional format rather than the mish-mash-docu-tribute-moulin-rougeness of 881. For a start, it was already a relief to most people that there is actually a story this time to watch.
It starts right at the beginning when Lian Hua (the titular character) is young girl with a hidden desire to learn singing. At a public opera show, the girl is enchanted by the singing of the Goddess of Mercy character and wants to be like her. Perched over a lotus with 2 disciples, the Goddess looks resplendant in silk and sequins. The audience in the cinema reacts by muttering ` Is that Sun Yan Zi?(Stephanie Sun)' I suspect part of the Chinese opera was also directed by Royston - it had a fire-breathing dinosaur on stage. Then her father is introduced. With fingers stuck to his cigarette box all the time, he is a boorish, violent, abusive man. Suddenly, I remember how much corporal punishment children in those days took. It was like the only way Chinese parents knew how to control, I would not even say discipline their kids. Like what the father says `without love there is no pain, without pain there is no love' Over a painful lesson, she grows up into the young adult Lian Hua played by Mindee Ong.
The pacing at this stage was comfortable. The kampung scenes oozed authenticity more than any other local movie has done - almost like Royston's ode to his past. Mindee Ong held the lead without batting an eyelid. Moe Kassim, the costume designer, as usual, worked with a million sequins and feathers. While the costumes are more of the same (didn't think he aimed to outdo his 881 assault on the senses), the only difference was the Matador themed one. The older Lian Hua starts to meet the other men in her life other than her father (after all, that's what the synopsis says - about a singer and the men in her life). This includes Ah Long, played by Qi Yu Wu and impish little Astroboy (Xiao Fei Xia) played by Damus Lim. We are not sure how Ah Long will get involved. His character reminds me of his Home Song Stories character, one that silently harbour ill intentions. He proposes to her father to form a performing trio with himself, Lian Hua and Astroboy. Then scenes later, he proposes to marry her. Yet, in all the love scenes he never lets her fingers or cheeks get close enouogh. So, something amiss seems near. Back-tracking a little, her father was killed in a road accident allowing the Ah Long's plan to succeed.
The story is so far flashed out conventionally giving the audience the right amount of suspense but without compromising Royston's knack for visual theatrics. This time, he brings back his knack for portraying rougishness seen in `15', something to compare against when `The Days' comes out in September. Ah Long's maloevolent plan is soon revealed. Lian Hua falls innocently for it and my heart went out for her. Whether it was a honest renactment of a real episode or a crafted scene, it invoked a lot of fear and grief in me. Even the pig head's hanging on her door said a million things. In short, it was a act of `sacrifice' for a man she loved. A sacrifice that changed her life.
Back when Lian Hua sang the song `12 Lotus' as a little girl, her father told her it was a song meant for adults. So that served the narrative tool of structuring the story into chapters. Funnily, if you read the lyrics, every one of the 12 chapters is very `cham' (pitiful). Which I felt was the trap the song brought the story into - a never-ending ride of pity and little outside it. Like her father's famous words, if there is no love, how can you experience pain. For me, there was never really a moment of genuine happiness. Every close and warm encounter with a guy was a trap in the making. Watching this movie required a box of tissues constantly ambushed at the side of your seat. (Yet, when the credits roll, you realise, the only stains on the tissue were butter stains from your popcorn.)

Okay, to be fair, there were genuinely happy moments. These were her moments with Astroboy (Xiao Fei Xia). He was brought into the getai troup by a fame-hungry mum. Sporting spandex shorts, a superhero cape and clownish shoes, he captured everyone's hearts. Interestingly, when he grew up, he became a Liberace-sque, sequin-donning effeminate young man. Hao Hao (the actor) entered the screen with so much fresh machismo but the moment he opended his mouth, he began squeaking like a fairy. I could sense the girls in the audience dropping their shoulders in disappointment. He was cute like his younger boy self but plastic like the getai costumes he wore. At one point, he even brought his girlfriend to meet the old Lian Hua and they looked like a Cosplay couple. I thought for a narrative development, Astroboy would have been a salvation in Lian Hua's life, but like a feather, he glided in and out of her life.
The part of the tonic soup that was really bitter and almost unpalatable was the the middle after she became mad and grew old and a lot heavier. This was played by none other than Liu Ling Ling herself. For a good 40 mins, the audience sat through her madcap antics and shizophrenia that led to nothing. Okay, not nothing but more song and dance. Two aunties behind me commented this show is `like dat one, very wu liao (lame) and an excuse to inject song and dance'. Her friend replied `Orh' and at this point there stopped talking and continued watching the show. Well, narrative purpose finally returned with the return of Qi Yu Wu's character. If you think about it, it is actually very clever of the script to make Qi Yu Wu return as a younger man after he disappeared prematurely. But the engine really stalled in that 40 mins of Lian Hua's hysterical nothings. Even the interesting set up of the scene (older woman and young man) was not enough to being us back to the story. It turned out that he was hoping to cheat some $$ off her. And so the song continues....Chapter 10....Chapter 11......
At the end of watching the final chapter, it felt like a getai version of the Passion of the Christ - a 2 hour orgy of pain, save for the very insightful portion of being setup by Ah Long. Like the `Passion', I cringed at the visual cheese and shook my legs at the dramatic drags. But nevertheless went home feeling haunted by the characters. Perhaps, this is what Royston's been aiming for. An real ode to someone he admired from working on 881 - Liu Ling Ling. Like 881, it was plenty of heart and just a lack of a blender. If I had a 12 Lotus DVD, I would rewind it just to watch young Lian Hua's smile, Astro Boy's cute costume, the dinosaur in the Chinese Wayang, Stephanie Sun as the Goddess, Karen Kim's red hot number, Ah Long's ....er....maybe not Ah Long.
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