In the local movie Bugis Street (1995) and in the Hollywood production Saint Jack (1979), the seedy side of Singapore is seen, but nearly all of it – the pimps and prostitutes, the drag queens and drug addicts – is a vision of the island as a human zoo.
They don’t make movies like that anymore, because that way of seeing 1970s Singapore has gone out of fashion. It takes a lot more than lingerie and cross-dressing to titillate the viewer these days.
Wonder Boy (NC16, 96 minutes, opens tomorrow), loosely based on the teenage years of entertainer Dick Lee, puts the sin back into the Singapore of yore.
The teenage Lee (played by actor-singer Benjamin Kheng) meets the mysterious and troubled Linda (Julie Tan), a schoolgirl who guides him into a world of louche Frenchmen, free love and marijuana pipes.
Lee, directing his own biopic, promised a frank look at the swinging 1970s and he delivers.
While mildly shocking, that is all a backdrop to the main narrative, that of a musician trying to be heard in a world that does not care for tunes they have not heard on the radio – when Lee (Kheng) performs, audiences literally walk out.
Lee’s father (Gerald Chew) and mother (Constance Song) try to talk him out of his obsession, while his pals and singing partners prefer that he stick to radio hits instead of self-penned songs. Along the way, there are run-ins with bullies and authority figures trying to squash the creativity out of the boy.
It’s a situation, Lee is trying to say, not too different from one faced by tall poppies in Singapore today.
Lee the writer-director portrays Lee the character as a misunderstood genius, but to his credit, the teen is shown to think of himself that way at times, giving justification to those who find him a handful.
A lot of care has gone into period design, not just in wardrobe and props, but also in music selection – The Carpenters and Bee Gees make the soundtrack – and Lee, as director, has drawn fine performances from the actors.
It is a shame, then, that it suffers from structural issues.
Lee might be the centre of the film, but the supporting characters have to be deeper than this. The collapsing of several real people into a single character has also led to schizophrenia; bullies turn into best friends overnight, before they flip again.
This is a coming-of-age story that needs to be told, if only because it offers a view of Singapore from an English-speaking, privileged, middle-class perspective. It’s a very different world – almost a different planet – from the ones in vogue, seen in period dramas such as Jack Neo‘s Long Long Time Ago (2016), which are filled with noble working-class folk.
Wonder Boy opens tomorrow, NC16, 96 minutes.
By John Lui
From: Straits Times