Theatre review: A gorgeous dream of cinema lost to time

Munah Bagharib in Lost Cinema 20/20 by Brian Gothong Tan at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
Munah Bagharib in Lost Cinema 20/20 by Brian Gothong Tan at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE




Brian Gothong Tan

Esplanade's The Studios, Wednesday (April 14)

"The cinema has no boundary; it is a ribbon of dream," said legendary film-maker Orson Welles.

In director Brian Gothong Tan's beautiful, bewildering Lost Cinema 20/20, that ribbon unspools onstage in a stylish ode to a golden age of film.

Cinema seats, complete with a box of popcorn, trundle across the bare set. An old-school film projector looms upstage, while a small television set crackles in the foreground.

Figures dance and drift across both stage and screen. A marriage collapses. A man contemplates shooting himself. A pair of pontianaks jive enthusiastically.

Tan first conceived the work as a six-channel video installation at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2018. It was meant to be part of the Esplanade's Studios season last year, but was forced online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this edition, he brings all his multimedia wizardry to bear. Actors perform to live cameras and are refracted into infinity on screens behind them, or are superimposed ghost-like onto each other's scenes, dubbing lines ever so slightly out of sync.

At one point, they even film a slapstick segment in a tiny model village, zooming in on the miniature figures.

It is a clever meta-theatrical exercise, especially in this time when the pandemic has forced arts groups to reckon with digital theatre-making and how to navigate between stage and screen.

The result is visually sumptuous, aided in no small part by Lim Woan Wen's dreamy lighting.

Tan harks back to the Cathay Organisation and Shaw Brothers films of the late 1940s to 1970s: a songstress crooning a Malay love song in a neon-lit parking lot; a homoerotic spin on the legend of warrior Hang Jebat; and, of course, the iconic pontianak.

Lim Yu-Beng (left) and Karen Tan in Lost Cinema 20/20 by Brian Gothong Tan at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE

There are also touches of Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai - toy planes and bare skin, disaffected couples at restaurant tables.

In a particularly stunning video sequence, the camera follows Lim Yu-Beng in black-and-white through the overgrown ruins of Capitol Cinema in Malacca, once owned by Cathay, now abandoned.

The stage, with its multiplicity of screens, is at times a hall of mirrors. At others, it is an editing room where scenes are snipped and spliced together with all the strangeness of dream logic.

Kaylene Tan's script excavates buried stories from a bygone era of cinema, such as the colourful life of Cathay magnate Loke Wan Tho, who inspired Lim's character.

The script takes flight in phantasmagoric vignettes of birds and burning, though it also wallows in the marital strife between Lim's character and his neglected wife (Karen Tan), the least interesting of the many fragmented narratives that flicker across the stage.

Among the cast, it is Munah Bagharib who best inhabits the liminal space between stage and screen.

Irfan Kasban (left) and Munah Bagharib in Lost Cinema 20/20 by Brian Gothong Tan at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN, COURTESY OF ESPLANADE

She possesses the classic poise to command both at once, slinking about alluringly in 1950s-style kebaya or mournfully soliloquising while draped in celluloid.

She also manically runs around dressed as a pontianak, anchoring a chaotically comic segment that links the Maria Hertogh riots to film legend Maria Menado, star of the 1957 horror flick Pontianak. This is one of the most delightful parts of the show.

Lost Cinema 20/20 is more style than substance, which it carries off with aplomb. It is no hardship to lose one's way in a dream this gorgeous.

Lost Cinema 20/20 is sold out. Limited tickets may be released, e-mail to be put on the wait list.

Correction note: An earlier version of this review said that actor Lim Yu-Beng plays Cathay magnate Loke Wan Tho in Lost Cinema 20/20. The Esplanade's programming team has since clarified that while Lim's character is based on Loke, it is not intended to be a real-life enactment of the historical figure, but rather inspired by him.