Rolling a film with nudity, transsexuals, prostitutes, is a sure-fire way to get on wrong side of local authorities. Bugis Street ticked all those boxes, and received an RA rating from MDA, only after having full-frontal nude scenes edited out. We follow the journey of starry-eyed Lien (Hiep Thi Le from Heaven & Earth) who leaves her hometown in Malaysia, with a heart and head full of hope, all ready to begin her job in Singapore as a receptionist at Sin Sin Hotel. Little did she realize Sin Sin Hotel functioned as a brothel, and gets a rude shock one day upon witnessing a transsexual cavorting with a client.
This film isn’t for the puritanical. Internationally respected director, Yonfan, shared that when the film was first screened in Hong Kong, “everyone thought it was in bad taste” and the actors similarly shared that they received a lot of flak for it as well from friends and family. The viewer is forced to confront full frontal intimate scenes that were raw, gritty, primal, and sometimes border-lining on the grotesque. Quite like Wit’s End by Joe M. Reed that similarly explores sub-cultures along the formerly seedy Bugis Street, Yonfan punctuates the film with tacky jokes, some falling flat, and others, inciting uncomfortable laughter from the audience. When asked to asked what he wanted to convey to his audience, Yonfan thoughtfully responded, “20 years ago I felt like I needed to explain myself. Now I don’t. What i wanted to say is already in the film.”
Beyond that, mastery of the lens by former fashion photographer, Yonfan, was borne out in visually arresting scenes that were meticulously put together with attention to the smallest details, such as adorning walls with posters from pop-culture icons and intricate costume designs for the ‘Queens’ of Bugis Street. Director Yonfan switched gears of his photography career in 1995, and decisively stopped accepting any photography assignments. Just as how he put a full stop to his film-making career, to focus his energies on his writing.
It is hard to imagine that the Bugis we see now, lined with street food and shopping malls, was once a sordid hotbed of young sailors and American soldiers in search of one night stands. What Bugis Street was, no longer is, and all we have are fragments of history encapsulated in films such as Saint Jack, Wit’s End, and Bugis Street. Yonfan, through extensive research, weaves in disparate stories of transsexuals that are grounded in some truth, and explores 3 main themes, namely: Acceptance, love and self.
The turmoil the transsexuals go through, post-sex change op, is more than a superficial one, as we later see the derogatory attitude male clients have towards them.
“My tits are as real as my diamonds”
Constructed beauty comes at a cost, especially when one’s self-worth is dependent on it. A large number of transsexuals on Bugis Street vie to be the ‘Queen’, the most beautiful, presumably so they can attract higher paying clients. Because of this constant competition of superficiality, we see that the ‘Queens’ get threatened when someone newer and fresher comes on the street.
The theme of family acceptance is also explored, when Lien gets to know Drago, a haughty ‘Queen’ who recently moved into Sin Sin Hotel. Beneath Drago’s strong disposition, we see her softer side when she interacts with her mother on the deathbed, who went against conventional norms to raise a transsexual. These strands and characters could have been developed in greater detail, but it seems more like a touch-and-go, which could also explain Yonfan’s approach:“I’m very greedy, I want a lot in 90 minutes”.
Everyone goes through life, looking for true love that awakens the deepest depths of one’s soul. The characters in the film are no exception.
Some force love; Lola, a force of character, tries to get her toy-boy, Meng (played by Michael Lam) to love her by furnishing him with material needs, even resorting to black magic at some point. Some construct love; Lien is besotted with a glance from a stranger, but later realizes that this would always remain as a figment of her imagination. Some stumble upon love; one of the ‘Queens’ finds her happiness in her client, who, according to Yonfan, deliberately casted an Indian, as he wanted to shake away interracial stereotypes.
Others, experience love “by the hour, or by the day” — the time intervals which Sin Sin Hotel rooms are let out. Guests come and go, some stay longer than others; an allegory for the love that walks in and walks out of our perpetual journey of life.
(Interesting nuggets: Offscreen, Lien finds love as she met her husband on the set, and is now happily married with 2 children. As for Meng, he is far from lascivious in real life, and has become a monk.)
Lien’s initial blinkered view of the world is made clear to the audience, when she mistakes a brouhaha of a man refusing payment of a night’s romp with flamboyantly dressed transsexual Lola (Ernest Seah) because he did not get a ‘real’ woman, as a beautiful parting between lovers. Delicately portrayed by a gifted actress, Lien’s fantasy world is forged around a ghost penpalship, that loses its meaning, when she begins to get acquainted with the realities of life.
Wrapping our head round the intensity of transsexual stories, left us slightly addled. Upon realizing during the post-show discussion that these stories are grounded in a semblance of reality, only do we get a sense of how ground-breaking the film is two decades ago, in confronting with the bitter sweet heartache experienced by prostitutes, as well as the taboo topic of transsexuals.
Lien shares that she’s recognized on some streets of America for her role, as Bugis Street has been elevated to cult-classic status in America. Sentiment has shifted considerably in Singapore with regard to gender issues, and even though we witnessed a recent blackslide in the Adam Lambert saga, Yonfan remains hopeful that Bugis Street Redux will receive similar cult status in Singapore.
Bugis Street Redux
Time: 100 mins