Review: Wonder Boy (2017)

Wonder Boy could be arguably the first autobiographical film made in Singapore, after the rumoured biopic of another more famous Mr Lee never came to fruition. But Wonder Boy is no biopic for the film focusses on only three years in the life of Singapore composer and pop icon Dick Lee. Very wisely so indeed. Like they all say the beginning is the toughest and where all the real stories can be found. But on the subject matter, some people may ask, what will I get out of watching a guy from a privileged background go from teenage brat to music star? Doing music is still a struggle in Singapore.

Wonder Boy will surprise you, like it did for me.

There is something equalising about the power of cinema. Whether it is about a historical giant or a man on the street. When a story comes to live in a darkened theatre, we may find ourselves crying with the fallen emperor as much as the soldier on the battlefield. It takes courage for one to strip off the sheen of a celebrated persona, deconstruct it and present it to the same loyal fans and say ‘I want to show you something that may shock you.’ Dick Lee did just that. Wonder Boy exposes Dick as a confused, wannabe kid who lost his way and became nasty and petulant to the people who showered him with love.

An honest tale aside, the film wins with its simplicity - one of a teenage boy behaving badly and deciding to start everything anew. The story charts Dick Lee’s transformation from lost kid to budding singer-songwriter and gives only a whiff of the fame he was going to encounter in the more mature part of his career, through a short ‘newspaper cuttings’ sequence. No grandstanding. No whitewashing. In fact, the writers (Dick included) can claim some credit for fleshing out somewhat a story of anti-heroes, each flawed in his or her own way, yet drawing us in with their individual moments of vulnerability. Dick (in the movie) himself is an exam-skipping delinquent, who was battling a crumbling self-esteem. Mark is a de facto leader of The Wonder Boys (the boy band) and son of an abusive father, who would strongarm his way through things to get what he wants. Yet there was that beautiful moment in the hideout from the police chase  when he decided to share with Dick his less heroic secret. Linda is a mysterious fellow delinquent school girl who frequented drug parties and took advantage of Dick’s cosy friendship with her. Yet in between their steamy, passionate rushes, we saw a girl who was like Dick, trying to find herself.

The undeniable sense of tragedy in each of these characters add up to give the film its air of poignancy, which creates the effect of saying Dick’s music was born out of a state of confusion, uncertainty and self-doubt. One can’t quite say it’s a story about a rich guy making music anymore. However, where the film fell short, was not developing these supporting characters beyond their short, standalone episodes. In particular, Mark and Linda had the potential to catalyse the story further but their episodes came and went too quickly without enough resonance. If one thinks about it, both Mark and Linda represent life-experiences which are polar opposites of Dick’s. Stretching these two channels of memories would have enriched the film and saved it from being ‘saved’ by members of the goody-two-shoes camp too early. Members of this camp include the mother, the sister and Louise, a loyal friend, groupie and fan.

Benjamin Kheng is conscientious in his portrayal of a confused, and somewhat serious-looking Dick who was trying to find an identity. Fans familiar with a more cheeky Benjamin Kheng on YouTube would be able to tell this singer put some serious thought into his delivery. However, there was also something about the thick-rimmed spectacles that got in the way of his facial expressions but overall, he held his fort as the lead. The actor who really stood out from the ensemble was Zachary Ibrahim, who played Mark (picture below), mastering effortlessly, the disposition of a street kid and a big brother. In a way, his natural ability to moderate the people around him makes Mark tower over the characters and left me wanting more when he disappeared too soon. Constance Song was a quiet force as the mother though the script crimped her opportunity to create more presence. Michelle Wong and Foo Fang Rong were competent in their roles as sister and Louise, though sometimes, they tend to blend into each other. Julie Tan (picture below) was another stand-out in her role as Linda. Exuding a hidden rebelliousness beneath the seemingly quiet demeanor, Julie depicted a girl with a complex, troubled soul, with much aplomb.

In the words of actress Amy Cheng in one of the film’s making-of videos, ‘Nothing in this film is shoddy’. She was referring the art direction. But the same can be said about several aspects of the film. Art direction was evidently a labour of love. There was a scene in the interior of the old-fashioned bus with the Wonder Boys strumming their guitar to ‘Love Me for a Reason’ while they were cruising home. The marriage of the authenticity of the bus, the intimate POV cinematography and of course, the acting from the ensemble, made the scene quite subliminal, and also indicative of the overall high production quality seen in the rest of the film. Another notable scene was a glorious craned shot of the Sarabat (drinks) stall early in the movie, that had a certain √°esthetic finishing missing from Jack Neo’s Long Long Time Ago even it was similarly a painstakingly put-together period piece.

For first-time feature filmmakers, the editing was brutal but good for audiences. Scenes that viewers might have intuitively expected to see were decisively chopped to keep the plot momentum going and in many cases, achieve a strong punctuative effect. One case in point was cutting out completely, the Wonder Boys’ school Talentime performance, which achieved both a narrative shortcut and a good round of laughter from the audience. For a first-feature attempt, the filmmakers made many clever decisions that made Wonder Boy not the film people expected it to be. I exclude that comment for the ‘Home’’ song segment because it was too much of an ‘National Day Parade-hijack’. But for the rest of the film, while it did not always hit that perfect chord, it was good music all through its economical 96 minutes.

Review by Jeremy Sing

Read also, our interview with Dick Lee and Daniel Yam on the making of Wonder Boy.
Go catch Wonder Boy in cinemas today!
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