Singaporean helmer Royston Tan (“15,” “4.30”) continues his love affair with numerically titled features in “881,” a lowbrow comedy about a Chinese pop singing duo. Slight narrative relies heavily on campy nostalgia for songs by local tunesmith Chen Jin-lang, which have been embedded in the island state’s consciousness since the 1960s. A wide array of flamboyant costumes makes this a visual treat, but pic feels like an overgrown short, and is otherwise bereft of value. B.O. went gangbusters during local release and may successfully travel across Chinese territories, but elsewhere film will have trouble rounding up audience numbers. Fest will likely show mystifying enthusiasm.
A hasty beginning introduces central protags Little Papaya (Mindee Ong) and Big Papaya (Yeo Yann-yann) as well as Singapore’s Getai song culture, which dominates the seventh month of the Chinese calendar in a series of open-air concerts around the island capital. After a chance meeting at a Getai concert, the distaff duo team up to become pop singers and enlist the help of their Aunt Ling (comedian and songstress Liu Ling-ling) to impress a music agent. Rapid-fire intro also reveals Little Papaya’s impending death from leukemia at age 25.
Wafer-thin plot mostly consists of warbler’s Faustian pact to be successful enough to pay for Little Papaya’s medical treatment and to counter their musical rivals the Durian Sisters (real-life popsters May & Choi).
Perfs are as rough as the sketchy characterizations, though Liu is clearly having the time of her life in the dual roles of Aunt Ling and her magical twin sister Getai Goddess. Voiceover by Aunt Ling’s son Guan Yin (Qi Yu-wu) unconvincingly prods the narrative along, and soapy serious moments trade on unearned sentiment.
Helming veers from arty to pedestrian as it kowtows to Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Wayward Cloud” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Strictly Ballroom.” Only the undeniably delightful songs imbue pic with momentum or life, but even in its brighter moments, pic looks like it was more fun to make than it is to watch.
Moe Kassim’s fabulous costume design has a gaudy sensibility that will warm the hearts of drag queen seamstresses the world over. Other tech credits are pro.