Review - 'Wayang Boy' and his silat brothers

‘Wayang Boy’ began as this.

A rudimentary tale about taking the plunge into something new, in this case, an Indian boy learning Chinese opera. It was born in the short film format, also almost the length of an Okto channel kid’s show episode and bore a good old-fashioned formula with morsels of life lessons.

‘Wayang Boy’, the feature film, is ‘Wa is for Wayang’ on steroids. Chua Enlai, a comedic heavyweight, is the school principal, Channel 8 veterans like Kym Ng and Chen Tianwen are anchors to the show that up the entertainment quotient. Hong Kong veteran actors like Law Kay Ying and Michelle Yim take the film to a new level, and pulls ‘Xi Wang Primary School’ out of its heartland status. To top it all, the ‘FT’ (foreign talent) issue takes centrestage, stealing the thunder from the simple laughs and bite-sized takeaways of the film’s former short-form incarnation. 

A bit of a long shot? But it passes the entertainment test. ‘Wayang Boy’, by first time director Raymond Tan, who also directed ‘Wa is For Wayang’, appears to be a formulaic comedy that is hard to distinguish from some of Jack Neo’s works but delivers some laughs. Raja is a foreign student from India (who hardly sounds like one, because of his Singaporean accent) who is trying hard to fit into the school’s community and culture. Even, worse, he has to deal with an obnoxious Chinese stepmother who is trying to force-assimilate him into Singapore by speaking to him only in Mandarin and keeping the phone away from him so that he cannot contact his father. Not sure if it is allergorical in any sense but the sino-cisation of Raja comes across rather unsettling and yet familiar.

Raja is only allowed access to his father once he obeys his stepmother and makes 3 new friends in school (again, sounding like an allegory to a foreign worker employment contract). Expectedly, it leads to Raja joining the school’s Chinese Opera Club and almost too conveniently, fulfilling those conditions set by his stepmother. Through these conspicuous plot devices, the film begins to feel like a children’s programme where the plot points are laid out all too clearly and the movie becomes more like a collection of personality-driven skits – Chua Enlai doing the Chua Enlai, Kym Ng doing the Kym Ng and Michelle Yim desperately doing a ‘younger’ version of herself.

The story moves on in the Chinese Opera Club and the principal opportunistically wants Raja to be cast in the lead role of a school performance to be staged for the Queen of England who will be visiting the humble ‘Xi Wang’ Primary School, for sensational reasons. So the kids, under the strict tutelage of one of the school’s senior teachers (Chinese language HOD? Disciplinarian?), played by Law Kar Ying (below), get into the hang, strokes and kicks of Chinese Opera. 

Meanwhile, another story moves in parallel, and in a big way, to the children’s journey. While, awkwardly transplanted into the film, its segments turn out to be the most enjoyable. This is the locals versus FT struggle. Chen Tianwen, one of the kid’s parents, sprouts xenophobic sentiments at every opportunity and loves using the word ‘aliens’. Kym Ng, the mother of another student in the school, bears feelings of rivalry against the native Chinese and Indian colleagues, whose superior performance is showing her incompetencies up. Completing the xenophobic loop is of course Raja’s own culturally-imperialistic stepmother.

The situations are exaggerated but they function to deliver some laughs. Bobby Tonelli, a new ‘Ang Moh’ boss comes in to replace an outgoing ‘Ang Moh’ boss, much to Chen Tianwen’s dismay and it does not take long before some open animosity is being displayed. What’s funnier is that Bobby Tonelli surprises with his use of Mandarin (plus some highly colloquial Hokkien) and up the ante on the game between him and Chen Tianwen.

Meanwhile, Kym Ng plays the ‘Ugly Singaporean’ and personifies much of the ugliness your see on social media –  aunties terrorizing commuters into giving up their seats and being sore losers in all senses of the word. Speaking of losing, all that xenophobia culminates in an all-too-familiar ‘car-touch-challenge’ in which one’s palm must remain in touch with the prize car in order to win it. A heavy dose of slapstick and toilet humour with an unabashed play on stereotypes makes this challenge segment quite a hearty laugh.

The scriptwriters of the film, by now, have demonstrated quite a masterful grasp of local current affairs, through its satirical depiction of the employment struggles, overcrowding and the titular concept of ‘Wayang’ (putting up a show) own by executives at the top, in this case the school principal. Some of its jabs at familiar viral incidents are priceless, like when the principal explained how the student Qigong players enjoy practicing in the hot sun regularly, parodying the miraculous burst of sports activities created for the real visit by Queen Elizabeth two years ago.

After a journey of physical and emotional struggles, the kids took to the stage for the queen in the ‘payoff’ Chinese Opera performance everyone was waiting for. In a predictable end to a conventional feel-good film about identity and fitting-in, everyone’s learnt something about living with people who are different from you. The film at first glance is undoubtedly flawed, rigid in its storytelling and skittish all over. But what saves it is really its ‘street creds’, an intelligent look at the cliché of ‘racial harmony’, that makes this film not feel like an MOE or MYCS ad. And whoever conjured this line in the film is quite a genius – when asked by the school principal to stage a silat performance, Malay teacher, played by Suhaimi, quips, ’Just because I am Malay does not mean I can teach Silat.’

Review by Jeremy Sing
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