Gaudy clothes, faded eyebrow tattoos, big hair, loud and always on the hustle. That in a sentence describes Lulu, the titular mainland Chinese protagonist in the new Singaporean comedy Lulu The Movie.
The character, spun off from a popular television satire show and known locally as “Singapore’s favourite PRC [mainland Chinese]”, may at first glance seem like just another bit of easy humour at the expense of mainlanders’ quirky behaviour overseas. But its creator – veteran Singaporean actress Michelle Chong – is adamant the opposite is true.
Partly filmed as a Borat-style ‘mockumentary’, the film chronicles the life of Lulu, a Shanghainese woman who struggles with her new life in Singapore where she works as a karaoke hostess and tries to win the heart of a man she met online before being recruited to host a TV fashion show.
Chong, who stars as Lulu and wrote, produced and directed the film, said the light-hearted comedy highlights the struggles of newcomers to the foreigner-dependent country, where as in Hong Kong, immigration, in particular the influx of mainland Chinese, remains a hot-button issue.
“I suppose you can say she is a stereotype, but she is not evil or mean,” Chong, 39, told This Week in Asia in a phone interview.
“It’s a light hearted comedy and at the same time the character is relevant to some bigger social themes... It’s a funny way at looking at the lives of migrants, not just in Singapore, but increasingly everywhere in the world,” Chong said.
“Mainland Chinese people are in the news everywhere, whether it’s good or bad. They are just fascinating as a people. We thought it would be a good idea to see the world in their perspective,” she said.
Lulu represented the gritty mainland Chinese migrant, “who doesn’t give up or give in,” Chong added. “She insists on staying true to herself and insists on wearing her leopard print clothes even if they are gaudy.”
The film rose to third in the Singapore box office after its release last week, illustrating the character’s large pull among locals. Chong first debuted Lulu on The Noose, a spoof news TV show. In the show, she features as a regular interviewee who speaks in heavily accented ‘Chinglish’ (yessi! yessi! for ‘yes’) and constantly exhorts Singapore to emulate practices in China, and vice versa.
In one particularly popular episode, Lulu ridiculed Singaporeans – notorious for their low birth rate – for having less sex than pandas in China. The character is also portrayed as an archetypal “go-getter” migrant willing to go the extra mile to make it in fast-paced Singapore.
“People find her endearing because of the funny accent when she speaks English...but also because she has a good heart, is dynamic and entrepreneurial,” Chong said.
“Ultimately people want to see her succeed because she is an underdog,” she said.
Chong, who debuted as a director in 2011 with the film Already Famous, said her characterisation of Lulu involved a high level of detail.
“If you look at her eyebrows for example. They are green. But not because she coloured them green. She tattooed them on years ago and they have faded away! It shows that she is not so well to do,” she said.
The character’s get-up is carefully put together, involving sequinned clothes that hark back to the 1990s and a large permed hairdo.
“This was how mainland Chinese were dressing eight years ago when I first started [acting as] Lulu on The Noose. Now they look completely different...but I can’t change the look because people identify her with it and it’s distinctive about her,” Chong said.
The actress said the character’s mannerisms and dressing attracted many unwitting onlookers during overseas filming in Britain, Canada and China. During the mockumentary shoot in Shanghai, Lulu “introduces herself [to people] as a fashion icon,” Chong said.
“People did think Lulu was in a fashion show and that she was a fashion icon. You will have to watch the movie to see their reactions,” she said.
With screenings in Singapore and Malaysia underway, Chong said she was also considering releasing the film in theatres in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her production company Huat Films is in talks with distributors in the two territories, she said.
Chong is less certain about a release on the Chinese mainland. “So far there are no plans... but it’s a movie that should be released in China because it is essentially the story of a mainland Chinese character who made good overseas,” she said.
“There shouldn’t be a reason to take offence...our humour is a form of cultural exchange.”