A love letter to xinyao

SINGAPORE - For a nostalgic film set in the early 1990s, That Girl In Pinafore surprisingly makes generous use of digital effects.

Director Chai Yee Wei, 37, says that "quite a bit" of effects were necessary to remove any signs of the present day from the film.

He tells Life! with a chuckle over the telephone: "I wanted to make sure that the film looked like it was from that time. Even if a poster was seen hanging on the wall of a building, we had to digitally remove any website links. And also, telephone numbers back then only had seven digits, not eight.

"Then there is a scene shot in Chinatown where we had to digitally remove the entire Pinnacle@Duxton from the background."

Construction of the Pinnacle@Duxton residential complex started in 2005 and was completed in 2009.

Chai said the pagers featured in the $1-million film required some effects work too.

"None of them was working anymore, so all those screens lighting up on the pagers, we had to put in the numbers digitally," he adds with a laugh.

Such details were necessary for his film as he pays homage to a bygone era in Singapore - the 1980s to early 1990s Mandarin folk movement of xinyao.

As a big fan of the music from that time, he made this film "as a love letter to the memories of Singapore I fell in love with back then", says Chai, who is married without children.

"I was a real xinyao fanboy. After school, I would follow my favourite xinyao idols around to places such as Albert Complex, City Plaza and Bras Basah Complex, where they did promotions.

"Once, I didn't have money to buy Liang Wern Fook's book for him to sign so I made an embarrassing sketch of him and got him to sign it instead."

Liang is one of the pioneer xinyao songwriters.

The director himself, however, is no musical genius. "I took many music classes, but it's either I just don't have the talent for it or was too lazy to practise. None of my guitar lessons stuck, so I guess the only way I can express myself is through film-making."

That Girl In Pinafore, which opened in cinemas yesterday, centres on the friendships and romances among a group of teenagers who try to save a music lounge from going out of business.

Considering how much care and thought the director took to ensure that the film looks true to the era it is set in, his movie soundtrack strangely features xinyao tunes that contain modern electronic sounds.

He says: "Initially, I insisted on having only rock band sounds, but for the danceable tunes, some electronic sounds were required, so we had to take artistic liberties.

"But I think the way the musical arranger did it, it worked pretty well. It gives it a sort of retro-cool feel. The songs were rearranged so that they appeal to new listeners but, at the same time, do not lose their original essence."

The film title provides more evidence that it is a project close to Chai's heart.

The director, who attended Catholic High School during his primary and secondary school years, says: "Our sister school is St Nicholas Girls' School and its uniform is the pinafore. So I decided that the girls in the movie are from St Nicholas."

The casting process was a miracle, he says. "I got exactly what I was looking for in these guys."

The film stars Daren Tan, 30, winner of TV singing contest Project Superstar in 2007, as well as twins Hayley and Jayley Woo, 21, and up-and- coming actress Julie Tan, 20.

"For the girls, the bare minimum was that they have voices that I could train. They also dance for some of the songs. For the boys, they have to be able to play musical instruments because I think you just cannot fake it on screen."

He had the cast undergo "some voice training by a record producer at (music company) Ocean Butterflies", but he felt they were all "more or less already set for their roles".

The supporting actors are fresh faces Seah Jiaqing, 24, Kenny Khoo, 25, and Kelvin Mun, 29. The rotund Mun plays Xiao Pang, which is Chinese for "little fatty".

Chai says: "I had some difficulties finding a fat boy, so I ended up going to different McDonald's outlets over many weekends to look for fat boys there.

"I finally found Kelvin at the King Albert Park McDonald's. I stared at him for quite a while before asking him to audition. I think he felt uncomfortable."


That Girl In Pinafore opened in cinemas yesterday.

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