For detractors who view 12 Lotus with the preconceived notion that the follow up to Royston Tan's highly successful 881 is nothing but having another go at the same formula to repeat its success, you're in for a big surprise. No doubt that this movie also revolves in part around the Getai (song-stage) like 881, but 12 Lotus made 881 look like a walk in the park, having its emotions come more strongly across, being a darker film than the previous which in comparison was much fluffy with the bitchy rivalry between the Papaya and the Durian sisters taking centerstage.
If amongst the montage of song and dance in 881 were I to pick a favourite, it will be "12 Lotus", though it was sung to a relatively upbeat tune. Here, 12 Lotus the song became the backbone in which the story unfolded upon, having its chapters make interludes in between scenes, though not always in consistent terms. Telling the story of Ah Hua the Pitiful Lotus (played by both Mindee Ong and Liu Ling Ling for the different eras in a twenty year gap), it's a tragedy of sizable proportions about the hard life and times of a Getai singer, whose men in her life were all temporal, just like that in Jasmine Women, leaving her to fend for herself with her favorite comfort food in cream crackers, and a Goddess of Mercy statue as a security blanket. Incidentally, lead actor Qi Yu Wu was himself named Guan Yin in 881, and his security blanket was a live chicken he carried around.
There were a couple of plus points in this movie that benefited from its larger budget. Production values were clearly ramped up, and while 881 managed to get away with its knowingly non-existent crowds in its busy Getai scenes, here we have plenty of extras to jam the sessions. Costumes were less glitzy this time around, but nonetheless more gaudy. Songs too seemed to have extra oomph in them, and one performance had the screening hall's bass throbbing and pulsating non-stop. But you don't really get a host of songs featured here, which would really have been like a repeat of 881, although this time there were newer faces from the Getai scene who were given supporting roles, and a cinematic platform to showcase what they can do to a new audience.
Undoubtedly, Liu Ling Ling's fan base and profile grew with her debut cinematic outing in Royston Tan's earlier movie, but while essentially playing a larger than life version of herself in 881, here she gets to challenge herself in a more dramatic role. In fact, I would say that this movie opened a lot of doors for the cast involved, and had everyone get out of their comfort zones. For starters, Liu's enigmatic presence throughout 881 lifted many portions of that movie, and I thought 12 Lotus was missing her charismatic screen presence for the 1st half, so fans have to patiently wait for her appearance to continue the story of Ah Hua. And even then, it's to continue the drudgery of a fallen idol, which can get heavy on the emotions, in total opposites to her Getai persona, as well as her previous roles.
But that's not to say that Mindee Ong was a pushover in the earlier scenes. Given its split structure with a tragic pivot, I thought it was rather wry that there was a scene which the trailer included that involved a splashing of paint onto her during a performance, which of course brought back memories of an actual sabotage attack on her during the promotional tour of 881 last year. But Mindee again proved to have that spark and spunk to pull off Ah Hua's role, one who is willing to sacrifice a lot for the men in her life, but unfortunately, I think one mountain can't have two tigers, so she got to anchor the role in the first half, before Liu Ling Ling's taking over in the second.
While Liu had two roles to play in 881, and Qi Yu Wu didn't even get a speaking line then, it looks like payback time when Royston had Qi take on two relatively different roles here, and coupled it with song, dance, action and enough scenes to emote and show his acting chops - everything that he had missed out on. Qi can already be considered a veteran actor in the feature films already, having a number of starring roles under his belt with that in The Leap Years, 881 and The Home Song Stories, with no signs of stopping as he will soon add Painted Skin to his filmography.
Supporting and guest roles would probably be crowd favourites. Television actor Huang Yiliang whom we have seen take on a cinematic role in Jack Neo's I Not Stupid 2, lends a hand here as the compulsive gambling dad of Ah Hua, dispensing advice that was befallen on deaf years. Fans of 881 will also be glad to know that Yeo Yann Yann does return for an extremely small role here, just to complete the casting loop, while Asian songstress Stefanie Sun gets a nice movie debut, and even celebrity hairdresser David Gan seemed game to go back to basics.
Royston Tan's 12 Lotus is probably his more mature film to date, being able to balance both sensitive drama with formula and material to engage the general local movie-going audience. Sure, 881 was more fun on the whole, but 12 Lotus had a lot more pathos going for it, and that's exactly where this movie shines, learning from 881 and not indulging and allowing the melodramatic moments to go overboard.