Not unlike the cuisine in his native Singapore, much of Royston Tan’s oeuvre is a riot of sweet, sour and spicy flavors — delectable, but also a bit rich and cloying. His first feature in seven years, “3688,” serves up a characteristically full plate of nostalgia, tuneful songs and colloquial in-jokes, nearly smothering an intimate story about a parking-lot attendant’s musical aspirations and her relationship with her senile father. Still, with a vivacious cast, especially singer-turned-actress Joi Chua, who delivers ’70s Mandopop with verve, it’s hard to dislike this cute little treat. After a successful home run, “3688” can count on some small-screen exposure in Asia.
By a stroke of offbeat imagination, Tan and scribe Lim Wei Fong have hitched together two unlikely subjects in one yarn — a homage to late Taiwanese diva Fong Fei Fei (aka Feng Fei-fei) and the seldom (if ever) depicted occupational blues of parking attendants, known as “summon aunties” in Singlish. Because of the hats they wear to shield themselves from the sun, they’re also nicknamed “Fong Fei Fei,” who was crowned “Queen of Hats” for her attention-grabbing headgears. Fong’s soulful ballads serve as the 38-year-old protag’s link to her parents’ (and her country’s) humbler past.
In a country notorious for its fines, Xia Fei Fei (Chua) may hold the most hated job ever. Trudging up and down rows of cars, handing out parking tickets to drivers who growl or grovel, she gets to play God but usually lets first-time offenders off the hook. By extreme contrast, Jenny (Malay chanteuse Rahimah Rahim) prowls her turf like a bounty hunter. Bent on undoing Fei Fei, she and her four minions try to nail her for some minor slip-up, oblivious to the arrival of a greater threat; the automated ticket machine.
But Fei Fei has more taxing things on her mind. Her father (Michael Tan), who spent years as a salesman for the Rediffusion broadcast-relay service (hence his nickname, Uncle Radio), is experiencing the onset of dementia and now roams the public housing blocks, soliciting subscriptions for the now-defunct service. As her dad’s condition deteriorates rapidly, Fei Fei’s only means of holding onto him is through Fong’s songs, which accompanied her through childhood and the prime of her parents’ lives. With the encouragement of taxi driver Maoshan (Brandon Wong) and Luan (Liu Ling Ling), owner of the neighborhood cafe, who believes she’s the alter ego of Lady Gaga. Fei Fei enters a song contest to fulfill a dormant dream, as the ultimate manifesto of love for her father.
In Tan’s films, music has always served to bridge the gap between his protags’ sordid environs and a rainbow-colored make-believe world. Less luxuriantly textured than “881” and “12 Lotus,” with their getai performances (Hokkien funereal vaudeville), “3688” still springs to life whenever Fei Fei gives a mellow rendition of her namesake’s oldies, without overtly mimicking Fong’s voice or delivery.
Set in Dakota Crescent, a residential area earmarked for redevelopment despite its 50-year heritage as a working-class heartland, Tan reawakens memories of an era when Singaporeans had a deeper sense of community and collectively derived joy from simpler entertainment like folk songs, fan clubs or radio shows in provincial Hokkien or Cantonese dialects.
Chua makes a fine screen debut, turning inexperience to her advantage as she conveys Fei Fei’s diffident, introverted nature; every time she grabs the microphone, however, flashes of passion emerge from beneath that placid exterior. Tan grimly portrays the diligent journeyman who was once the bedrock of Singapore’s prosperity; the quiet times father and daughter share inside their shabby apartment represent the film’s most lyrical moments.
Liu and Rahimah throw themselves into multilingual cat fights with batty gusto, jazzed up by the hip-hop stylings of Luan’s son Yoyo (rapper Shigga Shay). Entertaining as the dialogue is, a more serious attempt at character study might have enabled these figures to influence the main plot rather than distract from it. The company of Fei Fei’s male friends Maoshan and Fei Xiang (Jerry Huang) could have provided romantic or at least emotional arcs, but after setting up a reunion that suggests something might be brewing, the screenplay stops short of reconnecting them in a meaningful way. Similarly, the introduction of powerhouse Indian singer Tan Bee Keow as a contestant fizzles with a brief singing number in lieu of a meatier role.
Tech credits hit their mark on a modest budget of about $1.2 million. Visuals by d.p. Daniel Low (aka Danyal Basso) look lovely on a more subdued palette than he deployed for Tan’s “881,” while Don Richmond’s retro score is plaintively nostalgic. Frederick Lee’s grotesque interpretations of Lady Gaga’s fashions are complemented by wacky food-and-beverage-themed hair accessories.
The Chinese title, “Thinking of Fei Fei,” drolly puns with a classical idiom for “Titillating Thoughts” which in turn puns in a certain dialect with “3688,” following Tan’s custom of using numeral titles like “15: The Movie,” “4:30,” “881,” “12 Lotus” and the omnibus “7 Letters,” which he produced.