Culture Vulture

Theatre and film celebrate SG50 in style

Three diverse productions - a movie, a play and a musical - each offers a distinct path to telling the multi-faceted Singapore story

Celebrating milestones can be an illuminating exercise. The way we celebrate is often more instructive than the milestone itself, which after all is just a date.

I have been mulling over this issue thanks to a trio of movie and theatre offerings I watched recently. It kicked off with Our Sister Mambo, the sweetly sentimental film commissioned by Cathay to commemorate its 80th anniversary. Last week, I watched two very different theatre productions. The Struggle: Years Later restages an early banned work by the late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun in a nod to his company The Theatre Practice's 50th anniversary. The LKY Musical, which opened last Friday, is arguably the unofficial Golden Jubilee marquee event for the theatre scene.

This random grab bag of productions, in their own ways, signals how far Singapore has come and also points to what she has lost along the way.

Our Sister Mambo draws from two of Cathay's best-loved films - the warm family comedy Our Sister Hedy (1957) and the sassy musical Mambo Girl (1957) - and updates it, generally successfully, for the 21st century. What appeals most to me about Our Sister Mambo is its fuzzy familial tenderness, the same unabashedly old-fashioned vibe that powered Our Sister Hedy, centred on the scene-stealing Audrey Luo, who plays the K-drama crazed matriarch of the family.

But what struck me most about the movie was the casual multi-culti ease of the cast - theatre actress Siti Khalijah who belts out Mambo Girl's signature song with elan, Mohammad Mahfuz Mazlan who delivers fluent Mandarin lines, and Ebi Shankara who speaks Cantonese with equal fluency.

The presence of these actors is a reminder of Cathay's multicultural film history. At its peak, Cathay produced both Chinese- and Malay-language hit films and employed Bollywood directors to create its popular musicals. Its great rival of the period, Shaw, also had a similarly casual cross-cultural appeal in its films, with Malay stars such as P. Ramlee and Saloma putting in guest appearances in Chinese star Lin Dai's musicals.

No doubt these casting decisions were powered by commercial considerations in drawing a regional audience and hence boosting the box-office earnings. But this awareness of South-east Asian place and culture is something that I do not often see in contemporary Singapore pop culture and art. In the post-independence decades, Singapore artists seem to mostly operate in a regional vacuum. Once in a while, Malaysia makes guest appearances in a love-hate, compare-contrast capacity. But Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand may as well not exist in Singapore's cultural world.

The multicultural ease which I associate with the older Singaporeans of my parents' generation also makes a cameo appearance in The Struggle: Years Later.

This flawed staging re-edits Kuo's original play into a collage which juxtaposes the playwright's personal life with excerpts of the script and director Liu Xiaoyi's ponderings about the practice of art in Singapore.

Midway through the show, a tape recording of a 1973 cross talk performance by Kuo and He Jingguang is played. The piece, in which one performer tells his experience of taking a Malay friend to a Mandarin production, uses the Malay language in a traditionally Chinese genre and earns its humour from the clever juxtaposition, and surmounting, of language barriers.

This time capsule is a vivid reminder of a time when earnest attempts were made to define a distinctly South-east Asian identity in cultural practice here. Nowadays, the exploration of identity is conducted mainly in English, the default lingua franca. English cuts across ethnic and cultural barriers by virtue of the fact that it does not belong to any of us, which, paradoxically, means that it belongs to all of us.

The LKY Musical embodies this particular strain of cultural product: a very Western musical in the English language, a genre that has now come to represent mainstream theatre in Singapore. A musical is, inevitably, a pop culture product for mass consumption, and antithetical to the kind of precise artistic excavations possible in other theatre forms (Stephen Sondheim being the exception that proves the rule). There are the inevitable simplifications in The LKY Musical, but overall, it was a successful feel-good product.

The show made me ridiculously proud of Singapore's theatre scene, which has rocketed from amateur productions powered by raw passion to Broadway-worthy shows staged with such easy finesse within three short decades. The Singaporean talent that powered this show was evident to see, and hear, from the singing- acting powerhouse that is Adrian Pang to young breakout star Benjamin Chow to the uniformly excellent ensemble cast.

The multicultural element that I noticed in Our Sister Mambo and The Struggle has mutated in true Singaporean style in the form of "foreign talent" behind the scenes. The musical's story is by novelist Meira Chand, a new Singaporean of Indian-Swiss descent, while the book is by American Tony Petito, who founded the Singapore Repertory Theatre and is practically an honorary Singaporean, thanks to his contributions to the theatre scene here.

I see, in all three productions, good reason to cheer because they signal the growing vibrancy of Singapore's cultural scene. They are diverse products that seem to have little in common: a popcorn film which narrowly escapes being a corporate advertisement, a black box experiment that pushes the envelope for Chinese language theatre, and a big rah rah entertainment that gracefully navigates competing demands and expectations.

Yet, each production offers a distinct pathway to telling the multi-faceted Singapore story. Our Sister Mambo reminds the viewer of a time when the Singapore movie industry was a flourishing pop cultural force to be reckoned with, and gives one hope that in time, it could thrive once more.

The Struggle, despite its shortcomings, reminded me of a strong and flourishing Chinese intellectual tradition and cultural practice in the 1960s and 1970s. This withered in the wake of the mainstreaming of English language education and it is good to see a slow budding once more as younger, bilingual practitioners carry on Kuo's torch.

The LKY Musical tackles hagiography with more finesse than I expected and its unabashed celebration of the Singapore success story is a good reminder that Singaporeans do have good reason to celebrate our nation's Golden Jubilee.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2015, with the headline 'Theatre and film celebrate SG50 in style'. Print Edition | Subscribe