Jagged, ragged and darkly hilarious, “The Naked DJ” consists of one long rant by Singaporean underground musician X’ Ho about his country and late supreme leader Lee Kuan Yew, whom he compares with Hitler. Independent helmer Kan Lume (“Singapore Girl”) accompanies Ho on his first China trip, but the journey is basically just a vehicle for Ho to deliver a snarky running commentary on the city-state’s repressive government and soulless society; while it will be difficult for non-compatriots to gauge the accuracy of his criticism, the eloquence of his vitriol is archly compelling. Pulling no punches on a no-holds-barred personality, Lume’s image-savvy, funkily scored work is perhaps his best to date. The doc’s cocky attitude makes it a peppy pill for festivals.
X’ Ho (the “X” is pronounced as “Chris,” his Christian name) fell into the music scene in the early ’80s as a member of a garage hard-rock band, and then became frontman of Zircon Lounge, Singapore’s first New Wave punk band. He soon began to don more hats as a DJ, a columnist, an author of three books of political satire, and an experimental filmmaker whose low-budget works are regularly screened at the Porn Film Festival Berlin. (He even made a cameo appearance in Eric Khoo’s “Mee Pok Man.”) Still, it’s fair to say his one full-time occupation is that of agitator extraordinaire: “Putting it plainly, it is all about statements even when it comes to music for X’,” according to his website.
The film begins with Ho’s first trip to China, which he considers a personal milestone. Although his body is already covered in tattoos that he wears like a second skin, the highlight of his tour is getting one in Chinese characters on his calf, from tattoo artist Leng Yan. Their animated conversations serve as an entry point to his off-color and acute perceptions of the body politic: “Every time I have a Thai tattoo and the pain is excruciating, I think of Lee Kuan Yew.” His fixation on pain hints at a tormented psyche, but he also treats it as a prerequisite for creativity and freedom of expression.
Lume’s restless camera captures Beijing’s amorphous cityscape as Ho makes his rounds to tourist hot spots like the Forbidden City, 798 Art Zone, a temple and a street market, but this behemoth of a country serves only as a blank canvas on which he projects his relief of being away from home. “See all their faces, their non-persecuted faces … they’re just being themselves,” he says, which is ironic (or naive), considering that China consistently ranks in the highest-risk bracket of universal human-rights indices. Other than that, he’s not forming many opinions about the place or the race.
That’s probably because he can’t stop opining about Singapore’s problems, drawing thematic connections from Lee and the authoritarian government he created to Hitler and the Third Reich. Lume and his editor-wife Megan Wonowidjoyo reinforce his point with punchy medleys of cleverly spliced archival and original footage (in creamy sepia or high-gloss colors) that accompany Ho’s iconoclastic songs like “Singapura Uber Alles,” and “Singapore F–ker,” which crackle with droll lyrics. Also potent is the scoring of Iggy Pop’s “Kill City” against bleakly desaturated images of the city-state’s ugly construction and matchbox spaces, and the dour expressions of its citizens.
Although he occasionally tosses a few questions from behind the camera, Lume is content to let his subject take the driver’s seat. Dominating every frame and delivering an almost uninterrupted monologue, Ho, with his twinkling eyes and naughty grin, nonetheless suggests a prankish schoolboy rather than a hardline revolutionary, even when his monomania erupts into a didactic diatribe. In fact, it’s when he shares his personal experiences that he’s most in his element as a charming reconteur. His recollections of how the police freaked out at a homoerotic display at a 1994 Pet Shop Boys concert, or his own near-brush with the law for performing on stage in fishnet stockings, are not simply juicy; they perfectly nail the uptight, killjoy sensibility he runs up against in daily life. Elsewhere, his reflection on a fling that went badly is genuinely moving as he honestly confronts his own demons. Just as hatred is the flip side of love, so his beef with everything Singaporean also masks a deeper devotion of the most utopian kind.
Appropriately for a country obsessed with rules, systems and figures, the film is punctuated with a stream of national statistics (Singapore ranks rock-bottom in the world happiness index, below Iran and Afghanistan), most of which make one simultaneously crack up and despair. The sheer ability to accumulate such data betrays the mindset of a bred-in-the-bone Singaporean.
Craft contributions are hip and slick for such a small project. The husband-wife team of Lume and Wonowidjoyo have organized a staggering amount of visual material into sophisticated montages and image superimpositions of such emotive power and abstract beauty, they sometimes speak more persuasively than Ho’s verbal outpourings. In fact, a second viewing with the sound turned off may elicit a different response, and even unearth fresh insight. Following its win at the Yogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival in Indonesia, “The Naked DJ” will have its domestic premiere at the Singapore Film Festival. That it passed censorship with an R21 rating (suitable for audiences 21 and older) perhaps proves there’s still breathing room for creative, dissenting voices in the so-called nanny-state.