Bugis Street

Reviewed by YTSL

There is a jokey Malaysian story about an elderly Malaysian lady who went and visited her country’s neighbor to the south; an urban island nation that may well be best known in much of the world for its government having made chewing gum illegal within its borders and also for the caning that was administered to an American youth for some (minor) acts of vandalism.  Upon her return to a land that itself is not exactly known for being all that lawless, she was asked for her impressions of the infamously strict plus straight-laced territory.  Her arch -- but surely not entirely untruthful -- response was that “Singapore is a fine city.  Fine here, fine there, fine everywhere!”

In many ways, the prim and proper reputation of this oft described “Switzerland or Disneyland, but without the humor” can be said to have been well earned.  At the same time, that whose Malay name of Singapura translates into English as Lion City also happens to be rather (in)famous for being a leading sex-change center.  For those who don’t know about a certain colorful strand of Singapore’s social history and community, it can seem rather puzzling as to why people might choose to flock to this notably uptight part of the world to undergo such operations.  Ditto re why it is that a (foreign) film maker like Yonfan would set a seriously daring -- not least because it is filled with socio-cultural convention-flouting and -breaking folks -- cinematic work that could be described as “Days of Being Wild” meets “The Iron Ladies” there.
However this befuddlement ought to decrease upon learning that, up until its fairly recent “rehabilitation” and “gentrification” by the national government, Singapore’s BUGIS STREET area happened to be one of the most notable environs -- if not the very place -- to go to gawk at, pick up and fraternize with often very beautiful ladies of the night who actually were transsexuals and transvestites rather than the more usual heterosexual or homosexual females.  For the record: Many of this attractively lensed (by Jacky Tang) effort’s talented and often very photogenic cast come from the ranks of those who appeared to have, in real life, found like-minded folks and people who accepted them for what they were in that particular section of the Lion City.  Relatedly, it is precisely these so-called “fake women”’s insular -- but far from introverted -- very world that “the powers that be” behind this 1995 Hong Kong-Singaporean co-production looked to have set out to capture on celluloid plus explore; albeit primarily from the perspective of a sweet plus initially almost painfully innocent “real girl” who was on the brink of genuine womanhood when she first appeared at the establishment that turned out to be home to those personalities who form the very heart of this dramatic work.
Sixteen-year-old Lien (who is winningly portrayed by Vietnamese actress, Hiep Thi Le) is this Yonfan helmed and co-scripted -- with Fruit Chan and You Chan -- offering’s main character. Despite her having already worked for a time -- as a former house servant in a household whose “young master” adored her -- in her hometown of Malacca (in Malaysia), the young lass comes across as having led a surprisingly sheltered life prior to her coming to be employed as a maid at the Sin Sin Hotel.  Either that or she seemed thoroughly content for a time to possess a naïve, illusion-creating as well as highly romanticized point of view with regards to such as the ill-mannered goings-on that she (mis-)construed to be “the sad departure of an American gentleman” from the home as well as workplace of “his Chinese girl” (but actually had involved a now angrily sober American sailor who had belatedly discovered that the Singaporean Chinese prostitute he had picked up in BUGIS STREET and spent a drunken night with (also) happened to be a drag queen).
Before too long into her stay in this particular former British colony though, the Sin Sin Hotel’s new employee -- and this Category III rated movie’s viewers in the bargain -- gets presented with indisputable visual evidence that many of the long(er) term lodgers of the budget establishment -- whose room rental rate is S$3, be it for an hour or whole day and night -- are the kind of women who were born with male bodies.  Although her first reaction to seeing someone equipped with a pair of feminine breasts but also a penis is that of vomit-inducing shock and revulsion, she -- who also had wanted to up stakes and flee from its BUGIS STREET neighborhood ASAP post catching sight of such an individual -- ended up not giving in to her initial impulses.  Instead, she listened to, then heeded, the warm cajoling of Lola, the (transvestite) hotel resident who had treated Lien very well right from the start of the Malaccan girl’s Singaporean stint, to not be afraid of the often very special -- plus complex -- personalities whose admittedly unorthodox community the young lass had been slowly but surely becoming an accepted part of.
As she learns to see beyond the surface and become more accepting of those of her fellow human beings who less sensitive others might callously label as freakishly abnormal, BUGIS STREET’s female protagonist is rewarded with the generous friendship of the likes of the cosmopolitan and sophisticated Drago: a thoroughly elegant gem of a human being who had returned from Paris to minister to his/her dying -- but loving and tolerant, to the end -- mother.  Even while Lien came to have her eyes opened wider than she might have wished (via such as her encounters with Meng -- the slimy plus often under-dressed boyfriend of Lola -- as well as over the course of a night out on the town with some of the Sin Sin Hotel’s other denizens), the herself never entirely conformist personality finds herself coming by the kind of educational life experiences that appear to have enabled her to believe that she had truly, and valuably, come of age.  In sum: She learns to see beauty in unlikely places and to grow despite the presence of ugliness in our imperfect world.  If only we were as able to do so.

My rating for this film: 7.5