Review - 'The Girl in Pinafore' directed by Chai Yee Wei

This movie gives you many things to remember. Apart from the glorious soundtrack, another memorable aspect of the movie’s acoustics is the relatively liberal amount of swearing. Chai Yee Wei gets it right in portraying the act of teenagers swearing as oddly innocent. The irony is that teenagers do so not because they give no fucks, but because giving a fuck about their happiness hurts too damn much.

The profanities are one part of the movie’s major contribution to Singapore film in its realistic depiction of teenagers. What defines the youth in this movie and what qualifies them to be the heroes of our local culture is their unpredictability. On the one hand, the adults in this movie are more or less portrayed as caricatures of authority. The school principal and May’s mother are particularly predictable in their adult tendency to conflate immaturity with immorality. On the other hand, the teenagers are at once childish and noble and ultimately a force to be reckoned with. They are in one moment dumbasses who overdose themselves with energy drinks literally hours before a major exam and in the next moment displaying remarkable initiative in preserving their predecessor’s tradition.

Viewers who don’t like the forbidden romance plot in the second half of the film perhaps feel duped into paying to watch a soap opera they can watch for free on a local television channel. Most of us came to watch a group of teenagers’ relationship with xinyao music, not the relationship between an under-achieving boy and a high-achieving girl. Admittedly, two good things have come out of this potentially crippling plotline. Firstly, Julie Tan is especially commendable for playing her clich├ęd part to the hilt. Secondly, the depiction of a realistic Singaporean courtship is effective in alleviating the tension of the forbidden romance and is refreshingly relatable to modern couples.

Nonetheless, the switch of perspective from Jia Ming to May i.e. from protagonist to love interest hurts the narrative as it disrupts the character development of the protagonist. The switch is made to tell an overtly melodramatic story with more weeping and banging of doors at the expense of relating the subtle shifts within the movie’s central character. The movie adopts Jia Ming’s point of view once more when he finally resolves to be more serious about his future, but by then the audience has been too distanced from him to feel equally triumphant.

The love story is on the whole depicted like how someone would remember his or her love story--without the important bad parts. Granted, the sentimental quality of Jia Ming and May’s romance is in keeping with the factor of nostalgia which drives this movie. Yet their forbidden romance isn’t really tragic in the original sense of the word. From the start to the end of their courtship, they remain largely a victim of external circumstances. We don’t get a sense of their tragic flaws: innate flaws which lend a quality of inevitability to their oncoming tragedy. For instance, Romeo and Juliet are undone by their tragic flaw of lust which is a byproduct of their youthful impulsiveness. A love story in which one’s self is not one’s greatest obstacle just seems less true to life, at least for me.

Aside from plot-related issues, the production of this movie is top notch. When the cast and crew eventually move on to other projects, this movie is a good way to remember their talents by. The gorgeous visuals alone are worthy of Tumblr picspams and one can’t say this for a great number of local films. In our recent interview with the movie’s director, Chai states that, “This movie on the surface is a conventional teenage love story, but on the metaphorical level, it is to reflect the demise of the Chinese language in our society.” The loss of xinyao can thus be said to be representative of the loss of a valuable mean to communicate and relate to other members of our community. For alerting us to the magnitude of this loss without preachy undertones, “That Girl in Pinafore” has effectively done a great service for our society.

Strangely, the movie extends itself into a prolonged tragedy of sorts towards the end with many new plot twists suddenly being introduced or rather 'transplanted' from some TV soap opera. It could have done itself a favour by ending a good 15 minutes earlier. Nonetheless, it's offered its fair share of tender moments and heart-tingling songs that do stay with you even after the movie ends. So patchy plot development aside, if the music and moments sing to you, this may be one movie you don't mind catching more than once.

Review by Joseline Yu
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