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Friday, April 19, 2024

Meet the ‘Last Madame’

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Candor is always a lovely instrument to use when a film confuses you. Or, when you are at a loss for a handle with which you could approach an art form, which in this case is cinema.

I am referring to my initial response to the TV series, Last Madame, now streaming on Netflix. Personally, I had to contend with the origin of the film, which is Singapore. Of all the Southeast Asian countries, Singapore and its film industry “suffers” from its prosperity. We expect many things from this city-state—but not a film that grips us, a cinema that will be as relentlessly unforgettable as its neighbors.

Foremost, we cannot expect poverty porn from Singapore. At this point, the Western gatekeepers are eternally attracted to the depiction of hunger and crime as a banner for an “important” Asian film. That genre or obsession, after all, is a default act of many Asian cinematic traditions.

Then there is that part of any nation’s life, which is history? From the outside, we sense only the present and we glimpse the future in Singapore, but not its history. It is a territory that has moved so fast away from its histories and only the museums, where the background of its development resides curated, are the keeper of such memories.

Then comes this series, Last Madame. It is about brothels and the battery of women. It tells of a place and time when women are kidnapped and sold to the highest bidder. In fact, the first episode opens with a young woman made to stand on a dais so that everybody could see her, where men could ogle at her youth from all angle. It is an auction and two bidders are furiously at it, competing for the young girl because she is a virgin.

One of the bidders is a woman, a mysterious woman, all coiffed to kill and enchant. She is Fung Lan and she owns one of the top brothels in town, the House of Phoenix. Placed behind another bidder, we see in her eyes the scheme and seduction her person is capable of. She eventually bids so atrociously that she gets the young girl, much to the annoyance of a male bidder. Where the real Singapore stays clean to its ever-moving present, Last Madame looks back fiercely to a personal history.

The tale begins with a young woman who goes back to Singapore, enters this old, crumbling but lovely house. The young woman is Chi Ling (Fiona Fussi), a banker who works in Hong Kong. She comes upon this old house she inherits from her family. She badly wants to sell it but a man, Guo Wen (Ky Tan) from the local historical society, enters the place—and enters the heart of Chi Ling.

And yet, this never detracts from the story of the series. After some days, Chi Ling gives up on her desire to immediately gut the place and sell it, and gives in to the nosiness of Guo Wen. She allows the historian/antiquarian to inspect the mess around the house. Each time, the man finds an object, he has an explanation which captivates the woman. 

Boxes are opened and the past is opened, too. Letters are discovered and we read what has been.

The past and the present are tangled and disentangled in a series of enchantment. This movement between the past and the present does not create a feeling of flashbacks, which can stall the flow of any narrative.

Before you can hurdle the thrilling plot though, there is another element in the series, which will either distract you or be simply there for you. And this is the filmic decision to have the film in English. All characters speak the dialogues in English, with some Chinese terms inserted for, to use a 1950s literary term, local color.

In my case, after three episodes, I became less conscious of the Englishness of the dialogues. At certain points, I was savoring the piquant accents coming from actors who have varied Chinese backgrounds. Still, I wonder why the production did not opt to have the dialogues in Chinese and provided us with subtitles.

Be that as it may, there are the actors. As I am not familiar with Singapore superstars or celebrity actors, the film saved me from the burden of their biographies. 

All of them have a particular air about them, a kind of regal movement that approaches the stilted. A believer of culture dictating performance, I found them terrifically exotic.

Here is an academic question: Are the actors validating with their performance the stereotypes that Western literary traditions engendered with regard to Asian women, men and those characters at the margin?

Engaging yet light are the characters of Chi Ling in the soft hands of Fiona Fussi, described as Austrian/Hong Kong Chinese, and cool is the Guo Wen of Ky Tan. The characters, however, of the women in the brothel, the thugs and big bosses of the syndicate, and the policemen easily steal our attention.

Joanne Peh, the Singapore actress who plays the last madame, retains a mystery and vulnerability that would satisfy any Orientalist. Supporting Peh are two actors manifesting bravura even as they retain low-key ignition on-screen. These are Jeff Chou, the Taiwanese actor who plays the inspector, and Lina Ng, the distinctly quiet and stolid maid of the last madame.

Joanna Peh and Lina Ng would receive awards for their performances in this series. The series itself would win the Best Asian Drama category at the Asia Contents Awards (ACA) announced in October 2020, beating South Korea’s Crash Landing On You and Kingdom.

Last Madame is a Singapore Toggle Original created by Jean Yeo. The series premiered on Mediacorp MeWatch Channel in Singapore in 2019.

Read full article on BusinessMirror

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