Not The Wonder Years

It’s tempting to dismiss Wonder Boy as a vanity project, and many have submitted to the temptation, but Dick Lee’s debut film is homage to self, as well as a dare-to-reveal look at a surprisingly more uninhibited time

Kheng as LeeBenjamin Kheng as Dick Lee

By Raiment Young

Some people not only grew up to the music of Dick Lee, they had actually lived the world of Singapore’s most recognisable songster. I often hear of those whose lives have somehow crossed path with the man who dabbled in many things creative or, as it was known in Mr Lee’s heyday, “lifestyle”. There are those who had actually worked with him; there are those who had, through supplying the stuff he needed for his work, interfaced with him; and there are those who had co-conspired with him in his many schemes that had impacted the fashion, modeling, and music scenes of Singapore, not to mention, our national psyche.

Many of those that are connected to him, even loosely, have stories to tell of Dick Lee, and are curious to see if Wonder Boy contains any narrative that will match theirs. Unfortunately for them, this is not a recount of Mr Lee’s successful decades, or the unveiling of the backstory to Home. This is a filmic memoir of three of his teenage years, before and after a family tragedy, and the events leading to the release of the 1973 Life Story, his first long-playing vinyl. This is not an account of Dick Lee the fashion impresario who created the ’80s retail experiment Hemispheres or the music lover who became the Mad Chinaman in 1989. This is, disappointingly, a prosaic telling of not an untypical teenager struggling with the loneliness of wanting to break free—from parental expectations and the musical tastes of an era that weighed heavily on him.

The Wonder Boy film still 1Dick Lee’s first pop group known in the film as The Wonder Boys

This is a film with music

It is not unsurprising that you would think this movie to be a musical. But it is not. A Dick Lee film without songs is, I suppose, like fried rice without egg. So, there is more than an opening track, but the songs—mainly those from his breakout album Life Story—do not string the narrative with emotional heft or arouse feelings to let the spirit soar, as the Mamas and Papas tunes did for the 1996 British film Beautiful Thing.

Life Story is the first record Mr Lee released after being discovered while singing the song at Ready, Steady, Folk, a talent contest organised by the cable radio service Rediffusion in 1973. That the album should form the basis of the film is ironic as Mr Lee had told his Japanese audience during the Orientalism tour of 1992 that it was a “very, very, very bad, bad record—bad”. Although, to be honest, I have not heard the original press of Life Story, I do not consider the songs, while catchy, emotionally reflective enough to soundtrack an autobiographical film.

The Wonder Boy film still 2Dick Lee (seated) and sister Pat (left) perform for friends

The result is a loose pastiche of tracks that I suspect will arouse the memories of those old enough to recall them. That, however, may pose a problem: those old enough—Mr Lee’s contemporaries—are not the movie goers they once were. Those who can sing along to Fried Rice Paradise are most likely Gen Xers who remember it as title song from the eponymous musical (1991) than a track from Mr Lee’s debut LP (1974). In fact, many people did not have a TV set at that time, and were not audience to the songs that Mr Lee had performed during the Talentime series of 1973, when he appeared not as contestant, but “guest artiste”. If the songs are intended for a new generation of film fans—as I think they are, they sound terribly kitschy, with a musicality that went the way of Bugis Street.

Perhaps that explains why Home, written in 1998 when Mr Lee was in Hong Kong as regional VP of artiste and repertoire for Sony Music Asia, was inevitably sung at the end of the film, the way artistes promoting new songs tend to finish with something familiar, something that the audience can sing to. I was rather surprised that Mr Lee wrote no new material (rather, they are, according to the man himself, “music that has never been released to the public before”) or a love theme (there are love songs, but not in the tradition of, say, Where Do I Begin from 1970’s Love Story, with the specificity of the film’s story line) considering that love, in its many guises, feature strongly in the Wonder Boy.

Wonder Boy film still 3Party wear in 1972?

This is a film with fashion

The ’70s is a decade that can be easily exploited for visual shiok but Wonder Boy fell disappointingly short. Flower power was impotent, flares inconspicuously represented. It may have been “the decade taste forgot”, but the ’70s was, by many accounts—no less Mr Lee’s own—a colourful era, easy to ape for the big screen. In his autobiography, Dick Lee: The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman, Mr Lee admits to being a fashion plate from young: “started to notice clothes—how they were constructed, what colours they were in, what trends of the moment were” from age 11, and, at 13, “was the best-dressed boy in town with… a floral shirt”.

According to his description of the era, “youth culture was very adult-oriented. For example, we dressed like adults; the guys in fitted shirts with huge collars, worn with high-waisted flares, and the girls in elegant dresses and stiletto heels.” Being the truly fashion-conscious teen that he was, “a typical night out” would see him wearing his “favourite Swiss voile shirt in a green floral print, with an enormous Peter Pan collar. This would be tucked into my brown Oxford Bags, coming up to above my navel and with hems wide enough to accommodate shoe boxes”. Oddly, picking out clothes, getting dressed, and preening were not worked into the script.

Wonder Boy film still 4Indistinctive fashion of the film. The cold shoulder (second from left) is a little disconcerting

Few of those florid attire and exaggerated shapes appeared in Wonder Boy. The silhouettes were disconcertingly current. Costume designer Daniel Goh, former editor of Style magazine and an on-and-off stylist, seems remiss in his research for the film. I want to think differently, but it is not unreasonable to assume that he had picked most of the clothes from H&M and Forever 21, or such (City Plaza, a friend suggested), save, perhaps, for the lead characters. A major party scene saw attendees dressed in outfits teenagers today could see themselves wear. The tight shirts and their accompanying huge collars did not stand out; neither did flares, let alone Oxford Bags. The girls (with today’s brows!) wore printed dresses with a natural waist, but they could be any dress you will encounter in the MRT trains today.

The lack of attention to detail is especially glaring in the choice of brassiere in a seduction scene in which Julie Tan, playing a moral-dubious girl called Linda, who chain-smoked in school uniform, descended on Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee. The close-up of Ms Tan’s upper body not only revealed her not-so-ample assets, but a bra that could have been picked from Wacoal’s Une Nana Cool line, conceived in 2001 for young girls, rather than a Triumph Lycra/nylon, pre-Sloggi bra of the ’70s that reflected the youth and sexual freedom of that time. I’m sure if asked, Triumph International will gladly loan an era-correct bra from their archive or make one for Ms Tan to wear. If not, there are always the many photos of Guy Bourdin.

Detail was overlooked too in the scene when Dick Lee had a fight and then made-up with his sister Pat: he was wearing a striped, long-sleeved ringer tee, and a pair of bright blue flares with patch-pockets—the zip opened from the left! Is the fly detail to bear out the not-in-the-film fact that Mr Lee spent an inordinate amount of time fashion shopping with mom Elisabeth Lee in his pre-teen and teenage years, and “had to look as trendy as my mother”? Did he borrow her slacks?

Wonder Boy film still 5Dick Lee and his mother Elisabeth in their living room

This is a film with (foreign) locations

Much, if not most, of Wonder Boy was filmed in Penang—hardly a surprising location since Singapore of the ’70s is no longer evident, and the film’s S$1.3 million budget is not large enough to build a set that can depict 6½ Mile Bukit Timah Road, or Binjai Park to those in the know, where Dick Lee’s family home is situated, and St Joseph Institution (SJI) on Bras Basah Road, where he went to school for ‘O’ Levels.

The Lee home in the film appears to be a large house, but not as bungalow-like as those in Binjai Park are (including his cousins’—actors Lim Kay Tong and Lim Kay Siu—house), and much of the action took place in a living room that, according to Mr Lee in a behind-the-scenes publicity video, looks like the room he knew well. But the large grounds on which the house sat appeared only in a flash, and were referred to by Julie Tan’s character Linda, without the camera taking the audience there. The macramé pot hangers in the dining area, I thought, were a nice, evocative touch. The sum effect, however, was a home that could be anywhere in Singapore and the Malay Peninsular rather than the exclusive residential greenery not far from the rail corridor’s truss bridge that stretches across Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads.

Wonder Boy film still 6Classroom scene in Penang Free School

A good deal of the retro-coloured scenes was filmed in a school setting. Mr Lee went to St Joseph Institution for his secondary education, but in the film, the school is known as St Peter’s (could it be because he did not want to further upset his alma mater with insinuation that illicit shenanigans took place in the school compound?). The school of choice for the film is the very secular Penang Free School. PFS, which celebrated their 200th anniversary last year, is the oldest English-medium school in Southeast Asia. Students are known as Frees, and these include Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singapore’s first chief justice Wee Chong Jin. Interestingly, Mr Lee’s great-grandfather Lee Keng Kiat, a Penangite, went to the Catholic institution, St Xavier’s, PFS’s long-time archrival.

But it was PFS rather than the younger St Xavier’s that was picked, which suggests that the colonial architecture of the PFS building came to represent SJI rather than its religious leaning. Still, SJI’s distinctive crescent-shape front was not shown since PFS has a linear façade. Those who have been to SJI before it became the Singapore Art Museum also noted that the school did not have windows and doors painted in blue, and the hall/auditorium seemed a tad small. SJI in Bras Basah may only be a part of our faded memory now, but the school and the bus stop outside it (don’t expect to see the row of book and sporting goods shops that was very much a part of that area then) in the film did not look or feel like it is in the heart of the fast-modernising Lion City.

Wonder Boy film still 7Dick Lee with Louise who persuades him not to give up

This is a film with heart

I thought it would be. I saw the film twice: in the first viewing, I was not able to establish an emotional connect with it. In the second, I found myself finding its faults. The film, in many ways, is like Dick Lee’s songs—it draws you in, but leaves you not feeling. It has the colour and the vim (interestingly, not the camp), but once you leave the cinema, it does not stay with you, not even until the bus-stop. To be fair, Dick Lee appeared to have put in his darnest best, like he did for the National Day Parade in 2015, but do you remember NDP50?

Personally, what may have worked against it is the familiarity of the story. Mr Lee is fond of recalling his child-hood days in his concerts, and Wonder Boy feels like a replay of that unabashed conceit. Like those stage performances, the film is short of subtlety and shade—nuances not exactly Mr Lee’s lodestar. At times, I thought I saw bits of MediaCorp’s Growing Up even when I think he was gunning for the late Yasmin Ahmad’s storytelling, particularly Talentime (2009), a film of considerable emotional depth, and the title, coincidentally (?) Wonder Boy’s recurring theme. A comment in Letterboxd was unmistakable about Ms Ahmad’s skills at tugging at heartstrings: “Its 3am and I have the OST of this movie on loop while tears stroll down my face.” For me, I still get goose bumps when I hear Go sung by Mohd Syafie Naswip as the good Muslim boy Hafiz.

Kheng as Lee pic 2Benjamin Kheng’s geeky Dick Lee

As a first-time film maker, it would be aiming too high to scale the height Ms Ahmad had reached, just as it was when Mr Lee, as a school boy, aimed for Elton John’s musical sophistication. Rather, I see Jack Neo’s grassroots anguish (co-director Daniel Yam’s part?) set instead in upper-middle class surroundings, with the protagonists going about the way the chief director remembers things to be. Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee with bad hair plays it one note shy of over-the-top (or is it just teenage angst?). While, from certain angles, he has the boyish charm of the young Dick Lee, there’s an impishness about the pop singer that he was not able to portray. In contrast, the ill-casted Julie Tan as sex-bait Linda has the emotional range of teak. A surprisingly more striking and believable performance was from Zachary Ibrahim as Marc de Souza, the band mate with a tortured background and testosterone-charging, machismo-pushing anxiety.

As far as authenticity goes, the Wonder Boys was really Harmony, Dick Lee’s first band that he did not form and that predated Dick and the Gang, a group that he did form, comprising Mr Lee and his siblings, much like Jackson 5 or the Osmonds (it is rather odd that the younger brothers have virtually no speaking parts in the film even when John Lee would later play a crucial role as arranger of many of his pop-star brother’s songs). I am not sure why Harmony could not retain its original name. Perhaps the founding members did not agree to it. The Wonder Boys is really too similar to The Wonders in the Tom Hanks-directed That Thing You Do!, with none of the latter’s root-for-the-underdog energy. Which makes one wonder if, in our era of fake news, this is a fake biopic.

Film stills: YouTube/MM2 Entertainment, Bert Films and Dick Lee Asia

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