Review - Fundamentally Happy by Tan Bee Thiam and Lei Yuan Bin

Fundamentally Happy, adapted from the namesake play staged in 2006, has rich material to cull from. The 2006 production is the first that I watched as a young Theatre Studies major and, if anything, it has only gotten better with age.

The film (and hence the play) revolves around Eric, a social worker who visits his childhood caretaker, Habiba, at her flat after not seeing her for nearly twenty years. He brings with him a dark secret that has burdened him those past two decades.

I remember the theatre piece as an incisive and uncompromising examination of paedophilia that boldly confronted the topic without so much as flinching. But the play doesn’t just concern itself with paedophilia. Looking back now, I realize how prescient it was of all the Issues of the Day, arguments that have gripped our culture and media with a fury. Issues debated hotly by activists and journalists, such as: the nature of the victim, and whether the “victim” may be somehow complicit in the “abuse”; the dynamics of the abuser-victim relationship, and who truly wields the power; and the causation of homosexuality – does childhood trauma or abuse have to play in the development of such an orientation?

What made the 2006 production so memorable, though, wasn’t just its script’s smart and subtle exploration of those topics. Rather, two powerful performances by Chua En Lai and Aidli “Alin” Mosbit, breathed life into the production and grounded the play’s rigorous examination of these issues with a warmth and humaneness. Fortunately, the performances by the film’s actors are similarly solid.

For the most part, the script for Tan Bee Thiam and Lei Yuan Bin’s adaptation hews closely to the stage version.  They have trimmed the original script to fit a lean 60-minute running time, but have mostly kept the essentials and nuances intact. But whether or not Fundamentally Happy is a loyal adaption is not the chief concern – but whether or not it works as a film.

Even while Tan and Lei have kept the script largely the same, their chamber drama does carry some unique qualities of its own. The film’s claustrophobic setting – far less pronounced in the stage production if I recall correctly, owning to the endless movements on set – aptly hints at the psychological cage the two characters have built around themselves: Eric with his unrequited pining for his uncle Ismail, and his reluctance to forget and move on; Habiba with her inability to leave her husband despite full knowledge of his paedophilic crimes.

The film is a meditative product, concerned with pondering the truths of its characters’ words by constantly fixing its gaze on their faces. Tan and Lei’s adaptation is less invested in the “argument”, with who’s right or wrong than the stage version. Even in many of Eric and Habiba’s more heated exchanges, the directors seldom fit both characters into the same frame, choosing only to show one character at a time and capturing their faces.  The charged air of tension, so palpable in the stage production, is  punctured, and the spirit of contention that animates the stage production is kept tightly lidded here. As a result, the film is far less a war of wiles and struggle for one-upmanship than it is an attempt to peer into the hearts and minds of its protagonists.

But the film’s static quality does rob it of some suspense, and here the twists felt a lot less startling and impactful. Where once I was almost gasping at the controversial developments in the play, here I simply waved it off. Perhaps it’s because of an awareness of what’s going to happen this time round, or perhaps these revelations, once wielded by the characters as ways to gain leverage over the other, lose so much of their shock factor when the film adaptation no longer feels like a drawn-out verbal sparring session.
The stage production’s muscle-clenching tension (I kept thinking, “who the heck is going to win this battle of wiles?”) isn’t just for excitement. It also helps to accentuate the political and social dimensions of the play. The personal is blatantly political in the play, and the characters serve as avatars for the various sides of the culture wars they fall under. (Eric represents social justice, and hence social upheaval; Habiba, mercy, and the status quo; Eric stands for a progressive view, Habiba a slightly more conservative one; Eric, with his victim to survivor to social justice advocate life trajectory, can be seen as a symbol of a certain type of feminism; Habiba, with her staunch defense of a monstrous oppressor, can be seen as the opposite of feminism.)

Tan and Lei’s work tries to dial down its stage progenitor’s overt invocation of the social and political, but it is still completely aware of those dimensions. The directors use a more languid and contemplative style that invites us to study and empathise with the characters, instead of scrutinizing their arguments and trying to determine a victor. It employs a decidedly more reconciliatory approach in handling those touchy topics.

Even though the film does has its flaws - excessive staginess, for example - it would be unwise to judge the film against the strengths of the theatre version, of which there are many. Both versions fulfill different purposes: the theatre production, the firebrand, serves as a conversation starter, and the film, the olive branch, works as a call to reconciliation, compromise, and empathy – fitting, considering the contentious environment that surrounds our cultural landscape.

Review by Raymond Tan
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