Bugis Street (Yonfan) — a cinematic triumph released in 1995 — defies categorisation as it weaves a narrative set against the dynamic backdrop of a bygone Singaporean era. Breaking ground in its satirical, genre-blending approach, the film’s compelling tale resonates with profound socio-cultural commentary.
After the film performed poorly upon first release — common among unique movies like this — Jaytex Productions decided to be daring and brave. They worked on restoring the print and released it again. The restored version unveiled at the 26th Singapore International Film Festival in 2015, marked a cinematic resurrection, while, the second, showcased this year at Venice, re-affirmed its enduring relevance and universal appeal.
At the heart of the narrative is Lian (Hiep Thi Le), a seemingly ordinary teenager whose yearnings clash with the frenetic pace of the world around her. Escaping the confines of domestic life in West Malaysia, she ventures into the hotel industry, finding employment as a cleaner at the Sin Sin Hotel on Bugis Street — a popular shopping destination in Singapore, known for its night gatherings of transsexuals and transvestites from 1950s to 1980s that made it Singapore’s most visited street by foreigners in that period. What unfolds is a journey of self-discovery, as she encounters transgender sex workers within the hotel’s walls, challenging her perceptions and opening her eyes to a world of unconventional independence.
The film’s mise-en-scène, shot in the distinctive 2.35:1 aspect ratio, employs a yellowish frame and a nuanced colour palette that becomes a visual metaphor for Hiep Thi Lien’s transformative journey. The persistent yellow hues, juxtaposed with murky colours and pale white spots, create a visual language that evolves alongside the protagonist. From white to black, from dark yellow to black, the cinematography mirrors the profound shifts in her worldview, offering a sensorial experience that transcends the screen.
Bugis Street is not merely a film; it is a sequence of universal themes that resonates with audiences from all walks of life. It becomes a poignant exploration of the desire for freedom, from those who have never tasted it, to those ensnared in various forms of confinement. The narrative unfolds as a captivating and transformative dramatic sequence, providing a timeless message of liberation.
In essence, Bugis Street stands as a testament to the power of storytelling. Its restoration and subsequent re-releases underscore its enduring relevance, cementing its status as a cinematic masterpiece. This film transcends temporal and cultural boundaries, delivering a narrative that satiates our deepest yearnings for freedom in a cinematic language that speaks to the soul.
Ketan Koparkar is a film critic and researcher.