Film Review: Number 1 // 男儿王 (2020)

Some personalities need to be introduced in this review. Mark Lee (李國煌) is one of Singapore's most popular comedians who is known for his crude-talking gangster roles or uncouth uncle roles. Jaspers Lai (赖宇涵) is a relatively younger actor-comedian who made his film debut in Ah Boys to Men but found his niche in playing wacky, oddball characters, often with some gender-bending or subversive twist. Kumar is Singapore's most famous actual drag queen-celebrity who delivers jokes one punchline per minute in his stand-up comedy routines. In Number 1 (男儿王), Mark Lee plays a father who found a new career as a drag queen, and we can all start to imagine how this is going to turn out.

Directed by Ong Kuo Sin (王国燊), the film Number 1 (男儿王) is the brainchild of Jaspers Lai. In the film, Chow Chee Beng, a middle-aged white-collar worker, who got retrenched from his MNC job finds a job as a manager in a popular drag queen night club called 'Number 1'. It is easy to guess what happens next when you put actor Mark Lee in a situation like this - he gets the makeover of his career in heels. 

The anthem 'I Will Survive' by Gloria Gaynor, predictably performed by drag queens opens the film and becomes the overriding mantra for the film. It actually brings to mind a scene in the 1994 Australian cult classic film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In that film, we see the two drag queens portrayed by Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce lip-syncing to this very same song along with Terence Stamp who portrays a transgender woman. These three actors were considered to be very masculine and were definitely cast against type when they took on these roles. No one imagined them to be playing drag queens and in doing so, they managed to show their versatility and range as actors. Number 1 (男儿王) is certainly Mark Lee's endeavor in a similar wager.

There were actually many similarities with Priscilla making one wonder if it was an intended homage to the film. In one scene, Mark Lee delivers a baby in drag garb, making it reminiscent of the scene in Priscilla where Hugo Weaving's character arrives in full drag regalia at the hospital where his wife is giving birth. Priscilla explored themes of fatherhood where Hugo Weaving's character was ashamed to let his son see him in drag but eventually was relieved that to know his son was actually accepting of that. Number 1 (男儿王) mirrored the exact same narrative for Chee Beng and his son. Number 1 (男儿王), however, pushes the thematic envelope rather commendably for having Chee Beng's son play the role of Mulan in his school's play and having actress Cassandra See portray a masculine woman who is romantically interested in Chee Beng and through this, explore a gender-role-reversal. These elements elevate the script to a much deeper and more thought-provoking meta level. 

Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive' in fact, serves as a recurring motif in this film. After that first performance in English, it was reprised with a direct Hokkien translation on stage by Mark Lee. Kumar makes a cameo in the film in a duet of 'I Will Survive' with Mark Lee and also plays the predecessor to Mark Lee's AGM (which was explained in the film as comically standing for Ah Gua (colloquial term for crossdresser) Manager). The film also features other cameos by Abigail Chay, Singapore's most well-known transgender actress-cum-comedian and singer/songwriter/producer Jim Lim (林倛玉), who plays a priest in a shockingly out-of-place ghost possession scene. 

While Mark Lee is sufficiently competent in his role, displaying the reluctant drastic transformation of a retrenched man into a drag queen, the film suffered uneven pacing and there were often jarring tonal shifts, something few films, such as Parasite by Bong Joon Ho, have found a balanced sweet spot to. And then, there were moments aplenty of overly-stretched suspension of disbelief. In one scene, Chee Beng was trying on a bra and his wife walked in, who then believed him when he came up with the lame excuse that he was practising how to remove the bra for her. In another segment, Chee Beng had to run back and forth between the restaurant and the nightclub, changing into drag and then back to normal clothes again. There was also a sequence with the drag queens bringing Chee Beng's wife to the hospital on foot while she was in labour. The one that took the cake was an exorcism scene in which a priest was hired to exterminate the cross-dressing demons in Chee Beng. 

Some of the supporting characters deserved longer screen time for their back stories, including that of Italy (one of the drag queens played by Darius Tan) who worked comfortably in his mother's salon, the suicide story of the brother of a general manager played by Henry Thia, and most of all, Pearly's story, supposedly loosely based on the personal story of Kiwebaby, the transgender actress who played Pearly. While keeping the film in a safe commercial-viable zone, the film missed certain opportunities to open up meaningful conversations about social boundaries. 

All in all, the film, as flawed as it is, is still a step in the right direction in the representation of minority groups on the big screen. 

The film opens in Singapore cinemas this week on 22 October. It has earned two nominations at the upcoming 57th Golden Horse Awards, namely 'Best leading actor' for Mark Lee (李国煌) and 'Best makeup and costume design'.

Reviewed by Tan Boon Wah

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