Movie review: Mark Lee shines as Number 1 takes a cautious look at drag world

Mark Lee in drag for the movie Number 1. PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT



98 minutes/Now showing/3 stars

The story: Retrenched civil engineer Chow Chee Beng (Mark Lee), desperate for work, takes up a job at a nightclub. He finds the job entails much more than he bargained for. He has to manage a group of drag performers, a task which dismays him as he has grown up thinking that the crossing of gender lines is unnatural.

You would expect a movie centred on a nightclub with a drag show to be drenched in fabulousness and this work delivers - the eyelashes go out to there, the dresses are shimmery and the musical numbers keep on coming.

Indeed, the queens do a Hokkien version of It's Raining Men that perfectly summarises the movie: Ah Beng in drag wonderland.

To make the point, Lee's character is actually given that name. Through his eyes, the audiences take a peek under the wigs and make-up, so to speak. And they do, but not to the extent one would expect.

Beng, a good dad to his children and loving husband to wife Marie (Gina Tan), is front and centre throughout. Lee breaks out of the casting box that has pegged him as Loudmouth Bully for much of his career and turns in a confidently restrained performance - you never feel he has overstayed his welcome on screen. Director Ong Kuo Sin (the comedy Mr Unbelievable, 2015) makes Beng an easy character to like and Lee's Golden Horse nomination for Best Actor is deserved.

Unlike, say, Royston Tan's 881 (2007), which has getai performers taking the lead in a movie set in the world of getai, or the classic comedy The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994), about a troupe taking a drag show across rural Australia, this movie's protagonist is a family man. His struggles are meant to be relatable. A lot of it is economic - he fights to keep his fancy car and upper-middle-class lifestyle, for example. Not only is it stuff we have seen before, the thread of economic anxiety never comes to a conclusion, one of several here milked for a skit or two before vanishing from the story.

On the sidelines and begging to be dived into are the lives of several gay men and at least one transgender character, played by transgender actress Kiwebaby Chang from Taiwan. When their lives are shown, it is to elicit pity for the hate they live with or to win praise for being exemplary citizens who perform charity work.

Some might see it as a timid step taken to fight homophobia and transphobia, but by the standards of mass-appeal comedies here, it's a giant leap.

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