@SGIFF2015: Review - Singapore Minstrel

If you’re been in Singapore for the last 15 years, Roy Payamal is a figure you cannot miss. When busking was first legalised, he was the ubiquitous statue, painted in silver, baffling countless shoppers with his performance and his peace-themed placards. The mishmash, DIY style of his costumes and props always seemed to speak louder than him. In fact, he was never seen speaking and there is always this mystery around his identity and personality.
That mystery is broken in the film ‘Singapore Minstrel’. As if someone turned on the volume on his acts, Roy comes to life in stereo and he proves to be someone who does not mince his words. This is a film made by Roy's partner Ng Xi Jie, about him and the busking community. More than just an exposition on Roy’s life and the voices of other buskers, it is also a cinematic manifestation of a dialogue between Xi Jie and the busking community and also between the general Singapore public and busking. Xi Jie, apart from playing interviewer or bystander, reciprocates in the conversation with her subjects through reenactments, fantasy vignettes, visual references, song overlays, indirectly paying tribute to the buskers and the art of busking.

Roy, being the main subject of this whimsical documentary, anchors the film not only with his presence but with his point of view. While we are wiser from the ‘backstage tour’ of his gigs as a busker, following him from leaving his HDB flat to slapping on the white paste make up to the high points of his performance at Tampines MRT Station, we are also wiser from the stories of his cat and mouse game with the authorities and his struggles as a busker. In short, life is hard as a busker and his account about how the Orchard Road Business Association, together with EDB and STB, conspired to move him out of Orchard Road somehow bore a strong resonance in the film, for it epitomised the kind of ‘gentrification’ the authorities were applying to buskers. Roy, with his determined and somewhat stubborn voice, says it like it is, about the difficulties of being a busker in Singapore. It also leads to a kind of ‘us versus them’ point of view that inevitably colours what we understand about the other buskers. While the intensity of this point of view may be mainly Roy’s, for some of the other buskers seemed genuinely happy and in their element, it does frame the documentary in a way that it resembles a peaceful kind of protest, a call for a listening ear to what is really happening in the 'busking industry' in Singapore. 

In relation to this, some of the most iconic segments in the film were the scenes in which the buskers met the authorities either at the audition or the busker’s ‘training’ class. The segments draw a mixture of outrage and amusement. Outrage because the idea of having to pass auditions seems like an insult to the art of bonafide buskers, amusement because in true Singapore fashion of hyper-control, we witness Annie Pek, an independent producer and a busking audition panelist, trying to educate new buskers about the Ps and Qs of busking, which drew a few giggles from the audience. 

As angry as Roy sounds at times about his struggles, it is also evident the director is determined not to over-politicse the slant of the film. In fact, towards the end, Annie Pek demonstrates some middle-ground sensibilities in her comments on buskers, which made the good guys versus bad guys divide less apparent. Interjected throughout the film are also fantasy sequences which depict Roy immersed in mini performances, translating his usual street acts for the screen. These are essentially moments in which Roy, in collaboration with Xi Jie and Esmond (assistant director), is given a free canvas to paint his own world, and to claim something he's found difficult to claim in the real world. If one sees this film as Xi Jie's ode to her partner, then it must be one of the most romantic things anyone has done - creating a make-believe world for your other half, when the real world has failed to provide that turf.

To create this turf, Xi Jie, together with Esmond, go to immense lengths. The confines of a bedroom is being transformed into fantasy studio with the same rag-and-bone items that Roy uses in his outdoor performance, but with greater flair and detail. The director, through giving Roy's acts the full-blown theatrical treatment, aims for total immersion, possibly bringing us closer to the hearts and psyche of buskers. Ultimately, more than just observing the busking world and being informed about their issues, 'Singapore Minstrel' is a study of the 'busker' mentality - the love of art, the yearning for appreciation, the aversion to structure, the pride, the courage, the tendency for subsistence and independence, the love for escapism and most importantly, the need to always stay true to oneself.
Review by Jeremy Sing

This review is part of the Singapore Panorama series from the Singapore International Film Festival 2015. Read more about the film here.
You can also find out more from the official film website here.
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