Golden Horse-nominated local film Number 1 shines spotlight on what it's like to be a father in Singapore, says director Ong Kuo Sin

Director Ong Kuo Sin (left) with co-scriptwriter Jaspers Lai (far left) while producing the local film Number 1 which stars Golden Horse-nominated Mark Lee.
PHOTO: Instagram/burger_gs, mm2 Entertainment

On the surface, Mark Lee's Golden Horse-nominated film Number 1 seems to be all about drag queens and their life.

But look past all of that and what you'll find is a heartwarming tale of what it means to be a middle-aged father in Singapore and the pressure they face, said director and scriptwriter Ong Kuo Sin to AsiaOne in a phone interview. 

The film is nominated in this year's Golden Horse Awards for Best Leading Actor (Mark Lee) and also Best Makeup & Costume Design.

Despite its NC16 rating (due to its mature content), the 46-year-old maintained that the dramedy is "great for families to go watch together".

He added: "In this story, besides [using] the drag queen industry as a representation of an occupation, it also talks about the pressure that parents [face], especially from the father's point of view.

"I guess lately there are a lot of movies [about] female empowerment. For me, because I'm already 46, I wrote (the script) in a way that [shows how] a lot of people are taking the existence of middle-aged men for granted. What do fathers really face? They have to be strong all the time, they have to come back and be the leader of the household sometimes."

Kuo Sin reiterated that the pressure fathers in Singapore face is "immense" but "no one talks about it".

As for the controversial decision to include drag queens, well, both Kuo Sin and child actress Emily Ho (who plays Mark Lee's niece) admitted that it's an allegory to encourage people not to judge others who are different — whether it's their race, job, social status, or whatever else divides us.

Emily, 14, explained to AsiaOne in the same interview that one should not judge those who choose unconventional jobs.

On what she hopes audiences can take away from this film, she added: "I want people to know that you shouldn't judge career paths your family member has taken, and you should support whatever they do. You should be encouraging and open-minded."

Kuo Sin added: "When we were young, as kids, we didn't judge anyone by their skin colour or family background, where they're from or what they do. But along the way, consciously or subconsciously, we start to form all these judgments.

"In this movie, what we're trying to say is, if we could revert to a child-like state of pure love and pure appreciation for your peers and friends, what a wonderful world that would be."

Number 1 is a heartwarming dramedy that sees Mark Lee's character Chow Chee Beng taking up a job as a manager at a drag club after getting retrenched. Chee Beng then becomes a performer and realises he has a knack for it. The film also eventually sees Chee Beng's secret exposed to his wife and family, and how he deals with the fallout.

Too young to be exposed to drag queens?

An argument could be made that Emily is too young to be in a film that has drag queens. In fact, she admitted that there were people who weren't supportive of her taking up this role as she was from a "conservative school", but her parents gave their approval.

The teenager also noted that she wasn't involved in the scenes involving drag queens. Instead, her role serves as a representation of the mainstream public and their views on things like work and money.

Emily Ho in a scene from Number 1. PHOTO: mm2 Entertainment

She explained: "My role is sort of a judgy character that judges based on what they see and what they get. I feel like my character is a portrayal of what the general public or kids around my age would maybe perceive about drag queens, money, or work."

During AsiaOne's chat with cast members Mark and Jaspers Lai on E-Junkies, they also revealed that they took precautions during the filming to exclude unnecessary physical contact between the drag queens and to avoid being too camp.

Mark said then: "If there's no need for it, we don't want to include such scenes because that might make it unacceptable for the audiences."

Number 1 is now showing in cinemas.

ALSO READ: 'Why are you leading kids astray?': Mark Lee and Jaspers Lai on drag queens and their Golden Horse-nominated Number 1

bryanlim@asiaone.com