Updated: Aug 22, 2022
Yesterday I was delighted to catch the second of two 20th anniversary screenings of Glen Goei’s 1998 film 'Forever Fever' starring Adrian Pang, Alaric Tay and a very young Pam Oei.
Set 20 years earlier still the film concerns Ah Hock, played with characteristic charisma by Pang, who yearns for a life on the open road away from his job stacking shelves in the Oriental Supermarket in 1978. Key to his escape is the glistening Triumph motorcycle he passes each day on his way home from work but sadly it remains out of reach until, that is, he spots a flyer for a local disco dancing competition offering a $5,000 reward. Only one problem, how to dance ah? Luckily he finds a mentor, on-screen at least, as 'Saturday Night Fever' has just opened across the country sparking disco fever!
Despite being based in Singapore for nearly ten years I’m still essentially an immigrant and the country has changed so much in such a short time that its still hard for me to grasp the nuances of the culture and the “unofficial” national story. This film provides a wonderful window into that past, which is why I am so glad the Asian Film Archive has restored it to 4k glory along with two others from that same year; 'Teenage Textbook' and 'Money No Enough'.
Not only did the film look great it sounded great too with hits from the disco era faithfully recreated locally because the filmmakers couldn’t afford the originals. Far from detracting from the film this, and other concessions to low-budget indie filmmaking, adds a plucky charm to the flick that must have been groundbreaking at the time, both for it’s ambition and it’s subject matter.
Beneath the hetero-normative love story between Ah Hock and his beautiful-but-doesn’t-know-it dance partner Mei (Maddy Barber), there’s a deftly dealt-with subtext about masculinity and sexuality. Ah Hock is at first resistant to even watching a film about dancing, saying its for 'ah kwa' or ‘queers'. His friends agree and he can’t even tell his parents who are disappointed that he has not turned out as well as his "brother" Leslie, the doctor.
It’s during these tense family dining scenes set in an old shop house that Oei, playing Ah Hock’s younger sister Mui, comes into her own providing comic relief as an utterly naive but sex-obsessed teen who has her head constantly buried in books of erotic fiction, herself dreaming of a more exotic life. And then there’s Leslie who has spent his whole life trying to live up to his parent’s expectation as a way to cover a deep, dark secret that seems more prescient than ever in 2018.
But what about the dancing? Adrian Pang looking almost exactly the same as he does now (!) - with a sinewy, toned body that the director is not afraid to showcase - can dance, but it’s his eyes that captivate. The first time he truly let’s go and allows the music to move him he switches on that intense stare coupled with a crooked smile, aims it straight at Mei and she (plus we) simply melt.
Maddy Barber née Tan is gorgeous as Ah Hock’s ingenue although she might these days be accused of being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. Hock's gang of lads though are very natural with their group scenes having an improvisational quality, constantly talking over one another, competing to throw the best insults in thick Singlish which, I should add, has been subtitled at last.
The villain of this piece played by Pierre Png is somewhat one dimensional; a local rich kid who comes across as Danny Zucko without the irony. He drives the fastest car, dances with the hottest girl and his dad owns the supermarket at which Ah Hock works, which is all a bit too convenient to be true. He competes with Ah Hock but it’s not really clear why as he doesn’t seem to care about anything particular and his acts of villainy come across purely as plot devices e.g. when he kisses a girl, who is not his girlfriend, practically in front of her then acts surprise when she catches him.
And then there’s John Travolta. Or more accurately actor Dominic Pace playing John Travolta, playing Tony Manero from 'Saturday Night Fever', who speaks to Hock from the silver screen. This element of fantasy, which could so easily have been cheesy or tacky or simply naff, has the heart of a John Hughes flight of fancy in 'Weird Science' or 'Ferris Bueller’s Day Off'. Sure, we know it’s not really John Travolta, but it doesn’t matter because it's this that elevates the film beyond what could easily have been another kitchen sink drama.
That Ah Hock wins the competition is no spoiler, we all knew it from the outset, but how Pang and his supporting cast get him there is a joy to witness (if not the actual final dance, which in 4k, is clearly NOT Adrian Pang). Sure, the extras look disengaged and the cars in the background are clearly from the nineties but everyone seems to be having so much fun it just doesn’t matter. Miramax certainly didn’t think so when they renamed it 'That’s The Way I Like It' and released it in the US. Not a perfect film but an absolutely joyful one, relive your memories from the nineties and the seventies and go find 'Forever Fever' if you can.