'It's a Great Great World' for most seasons - a movie review

A modest photo-studio background with the landscape of a moon-lit river provides the visual motif that creates a commonality among 4 different stories spawned from the world of the Great World amusement park. The photos each look theatrical in the moments they capture, a little caricaturized and sugar-coated in the way a circus poster would, and possible summing up how the film seemed to portray the Great World – sweet feel-good snapshots of a spectrum of characters.

From the poster (below) one should already get the hint that this is an all-star Raintree production in which part of the fun comes from spotting your favourite Mediacorp celebrities making their token appearances like in a Chinese New year variety show, or perhaps a Halloween Dress-up party? Therein lies the challenge of putting together a festive pantomime like this that will still stir our hearts in a deeper way.

The film is told in 4 parts and each part is kept quite separately from the others. The story runs a complete gamut of age, emotions and mode of association with the Great World - jobless man who seeks an escape here, a young girl, operating a games stall who catches cupid’s arrow, a fading starlet who finds a new tune to sing to at the Flamingo Night Club and a newly-wed couple who cherishing the company of family and friends on a fateful night.

The stories are kept separate by the compartmentalizing of the storytelling – an old man retells each story one by one, without attempting to make any links between them. He is prompted by a set of old photos (all with the moon-lit river) taken from the Great World, in a manner that somewhat resembled an elementary school TV program, point by point with words articulated at regular rhythm. For a discerning audience, this is like a kind of ‘narrative hand-holding’ taken to great lengths. The set of vintage photos already provide a natural visual lead-in to the back-stories but having someone to tell it took away some of its mystique and elusiveness. The old man should have just said ‘go away, don’t bother me!’, then Olivia will have no choice but to take her bouncy curious self somewhere else and perhaps try twice as hard to find the answer, which would have made a more exciting movie!

Henry Thia in Chapter 1

Grace Chang’s ‘Mambo Girl’ cha-cha number raises the curtain on the first story, anchored by Henry Thia. He is, and has typically been in many movies, an ambling, wandering odd-jobs bloke. This time, he is a little worse than that, an unemployed, single man who fools his bed-ridden mum into thinking he’s going out to work when he is in fact, going to the Great World. This is the segment of caricatures where we meet the bizarre and the kooky, including an unrecognizable Chen Tianwen who has piled on the kilos quite shockingly. Henry, who owes money to a ‘side-show’ troupe master is forced to play a ‘baby’ alongside his other ‘freak’ brothers and sisters. Some of them included a ‘big’ girl with a red wig and beard and a muscle iron-man in an undersized leotard. While a thoughtful, visual oddity, this touch of PT Barnum and Circus seemed a little out of context.

Interestingly, this was the first point in the movie when the use of dialect was noticeable, probably because the characters looked straight out of a Western circus and they were speaking in Hokkien! It was a point when I questioned the language used in the movie. Not that it was inappropriate but it gave me a sense that actors were not fitting into the right shoes. That’s one problem with using TV personalities and making them speak an unusual tongue. The word is ‘exoticising’.

Joanne Peh and Zhang Zhen Huan in Chapter 2

The predominance of slapstick antics and fleeting acts of creative mischief made this segment easy to forget. Thankfully, the film’s tapestry is enriched by its subsequent stories. From amusement, we move to amour, in which a young ‘shooting game’ stall-keeper has a hormonal encounter with a dashing young patron. This is supposedly the segment to showcase the ‘sweet young things’ of Mediacorp – Joanne Peh and Zhang Zhen Huan. Boy meets girl and in the context of the 60s, express their mutual interest in each other through counter-actions of ego bashing and prank-like revenges. Basically, a small prank leads to a bigger one at the Ghost Train ride. Both pit their fear-thresholds against each other and play a game of who’s the scaredy-cat. The Ghost Train sequence was particularly a treat because you feel part of the ride as well, awaiting the next surprise that dangles in front of you.

The tit-for-tat game played by the 2 young puppies does stir up a tune or tow though the final kissing scene was a little too Hollywood (maybe intended so for that touch of whimsy). Again, the lack of context made the romance rather transient, almost like a meeting of prototypes - Ah-Lian, working-class girl meets dashing pretty young boy knows how to hit the right buttons and give us all a happy ending. We have no idea what he does, where he comes from and what he’s after. We all love an innocent, frivolous love adventure but we all remember more, a hard-earned, enduring love built amidst struggle.

Xiang Yun in Chapter 3

That is why the 3rd segment of the film was for me, the emotional anchor of the film. The puppy-love from the 2nd segment matures into a flavourful and poignant love affair. Xiang Yun, lending her gravitas to the film, plays Rose, a fading songstress in the Flamingo Night Club, fighting hard to regain her turf against the younger troupers. She battles age and tries to cope by lighting one cigarette after another. She fumbles through her dance steps and give her audience a show-stopper of a different kind. But in that stubborn old self is a spirit that is not giving up. Sounds cliché? But Xiang Yun makes this into her own. Not exactly a siren in the likes of Gong Li (as some netizens have compared) but she gives Rose an agenda which most is faintly noticeable in most of the characters, something compelling for us to believe in. It’s a kind of self-defeating and desperate spirit that is looking an answer, which she eventually finds and reinvents herself with. In a way, it also mirrors the subsequent development of the Great World amusement park as we know of it from recent history.

On hind-sight, the film is really quite tightly structured. Every chapter with its key players is like a season. Each season has its overriding mood and puts the spotlight on a different landmark of the Great World, be it a physical or even a spiritual landmark. Segment 1 is like Spring. It is light-hearted, kiddy, playful and it reminds us of our yearnings(sometimes bitter) for the thrills at the park that became integral to those who grew up in the 60s and 70s. Then the temperature rises a little with first-loves in Segment 2, still playful but only more rebellious and spirited (in all senses of the word), like Summer. Then things slow down a little and we lament about the lost of time in Segment 3 where Autumn leaves would very much fit in with the wistful of the iconic Flamingo Club and a fading singstress. Which leaves Winter, the last season of all, where final moments are cherished and sweet goodbyes are exchanged.

Bryan Wong, Kym Ng and Zhang Yao Dong in Chapter 4

In the final segment, in a rather confusing manner, we head decades back in time to a WWII period. A couple, newly-married hosts a grand dinner at the famous Wing Choon Yuen restaurant. On their big night, the Japanese planes are heard roaring past the skies above them, making the event not quite the sweet affair it was meant to be. But despite that, the overriding mood in this segment is far from one that is grave. Instead, it takes a rather matter-of-fact treatment of the impending war and instead punctuates the scenes with pockets of humour. A motley bunch of characters create a friendly battle of dialects in the kitchen. It seemed of no coincidence that all the seasoned Channel 8 hosts seemed to be placed in that scene, Bryan Wong, Zhang Yao Dong and Marcus Chin as two talkative chefs and Kym Ng as the ‘chilli-padi’ restauranat manager. To top it all up, Auntie Lucy (below) makes a cameo appearance as her 1940s-self complete with her signature head jerks and frenzied hand movements, certainly one of the highlights of the segment, if not, the entire film.

I must also comment on a directorial quirk that caught my attention. The momentary focus on the kids playing with the drinks and sauces, which seems inconsequential and more like a distraction to the plot, is actually quite observant on Kelvin’s part. Consistent in his other films, Kelvin has always been able to capture the unusual and sometimes even the unsettling, almost to the point of it being a fixation.

That’s Kelvin at his best, I suppose, always able to disturb and unsettle his audience (in a good way). It’s Great Great World , however, seems tied to a certain strict TV formula, that I suspect came with the entire financial ‘origin’ of the film. It feels like Kelvin Tong ‘with hands tied’. It is also a challenge trying to get seasoned TV actors out of their modus operandi or conversely trying to get us, the audience, to not see our ubiquitous TV personalities, as their TV-selves (especially Yvonne Lim, skinny as a willow, who looked ill-fitted into her photographer ‘suspender’ strung get-up). When you bring on an entire stable of stars for a blockbuster like this, some moments get lost. These were in fact the gems for me in the near-2 hours of sitting in the theatre. For a place so pregnant in memories and dreams, sometimes less is more and all it takes for us to be vividly transported back is not fanfare and theatrics. There was one particular shot of the Great World at the opening of Segment 1 when camera glides above the park and we it in its unassuming form through a tinge of sepia, like it appears in the postcards. That’s the evergreen memory of the Great World I took home from the film.

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