Aboring and stilted walk down fake-mammary lane, “Bugis Street” attempts to re-create Singapore’s infamous transsexual row of the 1960s, before city fathers decided to Disney-fy the entire country. Bawdy subject matter, mostly English-lingo dialogue, and the presence of Hiep Thi Le — the Vietnamese thesp who starred in Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth”– may turn some arthouse heads, although this ultimately will walk down the boulevard of soft-core vids.
Hiep toplines as Lian, a 16-year-old virgin from Malacca who becomes an all-purpose chambermaid and desk clerk at the Sin Sin Hotel, where the fanciest hookers in town are forever drifting through (the hotel charges $ 3 per hour, and also $ 3 per day). It takes Lian about a month to figure out that these women actually are men, and by then she has begun to depend on the advice of some of the more philosophical residents, such as Drag-o (actually Greg-o), who pines for Paris, and Lola (Ernest Seah), whose macho b.f. (Michael Lam) — always seen in his jockey shorts — catches the new girl’s rapidly maturing eye.
These queenly roles all are played by non-thesps and, although they’re genuine in other ways, this contributes to pic’s static, overly mannered feel. With a cast from many countries, everyone speaking English makes strategic sense , but the phonetic-sounding chatter often is hard to follow, and not very rewarding anyway. Against these amateurs, Hiep comes off better than she did in “Heaven,” but that’s not saying much, as all she has to do is look wide-eyed and dismayed for most of the pic.
Lensing is OK, with purely visual vignettes sometimes adding lyrical grace notes to the plot’s not-so-forward motion. The street scenes (shot on Kim Yam Road) are the biggest disappointment, with every shot a stiff tableau rather than a colorful slice of messy underground life. Auds also may be expecting a little more explicit action, but aside from some brief full-frontal business, the sex is fairly tame. Still, “Bugis Street” is raunchy enough to make one wonder how it got past the ever-ready canes of Singapore’s censors.