Bugis Street Redux – Berlinale 2012

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妖街皇后 | Yao Jie Huang Hou | Bugis Street Redux
Director: Yonfan
Cast: Hiep Thi Le, Michael Lam, Greg-O, Ernest Seah, Benedict Goh, Maggie Lye, Gerald Chen, Matthew Foo, Kelvin Lua, Lily Ong/Lily Siew Lin Ong, Godfrey Yew
Hong Kong, China 1995/2012 (European Premiere)

This beautiful restoration of a 1995 queer classic opens with a Shakespeare epigram: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

“All the world’s a stage” could serve as well for this enchanting semi-documentary about the drag divas of the Sin Sin Hotel set in 1970s Singapore. Destroyed as part of urban development in the 1980s, Bugis Street had been a top tourist destination from the 1950s, when transvestites in the quarter started to attract increasing numbers of Western tourists, reaching an apex when Singapore became a major R&R stop for American sailors going to and from combat posts in Vietnam. Drop-dead gorgeous, the girls of “Boogie Street” proffered an hour of sex with an “exotic oriental” with the added allure of gender-role transgression.

We meet a lodger who enters with a sailor in tow: “A room.” “By day or hour?” “What do you think? I’m a fast worker!”

Enter 16-year-old Lian, a girl from rural Malacca, who lands at the Sin Sin to work as a chambermaid after serving a rich family in Malaysia. The brilliant Vietnamese actress Hiep Thi Le (Heaven and Earth) embodies Lian as an ingénue who adopts the trannies of Sin Sin as her family after overcoming an initial vomit-inducing sight of a lodger generously endowed with breasts and a penis. Lian comes to appreciate the unique, complex personalities of the unique community of Sin Sin largely through the efforts of Lola (Ernest Seah), a transsexual prostitute who, despite her own pressing troubles, takes Lian under her wing. “Forgive us. We are not the same as others. But we are harmless. I promise.”

Before long, Lian becomes a beloved mascot to the denizens of Sin Sin and the particular favorite of the sophisticated, mysterious Drago (Greg-O), who has descended on the hotel from Paris to visit her dying mother, with Louis Vuitton luggage, Beauté du Buste lotion, and French recipes in tow.

Bugis Street is totally incorrect – in one key scene Lian rushes to the aid of a Sin Sin lodger who is being gang raped, only to be sent away with the cry, “Let my dreams come true!” When Lian muses on the “rewards of makeup and the price to pay” and accepts that she, too, will “never be like the others”, the screen opens to show the new Singapore skyline with cranes encroaching ominously on Bugis Street.

Yonfan had the support of elite Hong Kong professionals in cinematography, editing, music and art direction, and it shows. Bugis Street Redux is glorious cinema with heart.

Berlinale Section: Panorama