That Girl in Pinafore (2013)


Director:  Chai Yee-Wei
Cast:  Daren Tan, Julie Tan, Jayley Woo, Hayley Woo, Sherly Ng, Kelvin Mun, Seah Jiaqing, Kenny Khoo
Plot:  A coming-of-age teenage romance from Singapore set in 1993, about dreams, friendships, first love, and the difficult choice between following your head, or listening to your heart.  The story follows the teenagers' efforts to bring business back to a struggling folk music pub, and the blossoming love between Jiaming and May, both fans of Singaporean folk music. 

Genre:  Drama / Comedy / Music
Awards:  -
Runtime:  115min
Rating:  PG13 

One of the highlights this August is muting our television sets when the National Day theme song is played during the parade. The other highlight is that two new local features will be released – one a light-hearted, sentimental romance-comedy, the other a Cannes award winner. 

The critical buzz for the latter has been quite positive, and hopefully it translates well into box-office success here.  But before Ilo Ilo hits the big screen, we have a sweet and fun movie from director Chai Yee-Wei, who previously made Blood Ties (2009) and Twisted (2011).

Its Chinese title is a mouthful, and will translate awkwardly into English, which is why the current title That Girl in Pinafore is a smart marketing move because it is at once intriguing and nostalgic. 

While Chai's film is not exactly a highly interesting one, it is very much an ode to the inspirational 'xinyao' music movement that started in Singapore in the 1980s and continued successfully into the early 1990s.  Not that it is focused on that aspect historically; rather 'xinyao' serves as a backdrop to a romance story that is also a coming-of-age one. 

Chai's film follows a mostly ordinary plotting with characters that you have probably seen before in a school setting - the obnoxious bullies, the flirty boys and the annoying girls.  There is nothing fresh or original about That Girl in Pinafore from a narrative standpoint, although it veers into another direction in the final act, taking a melancholic turn that feels tonally uneven in the big scheme of things. 

Chai's intention to surprise works against the narrative flow, feeling forced in the process, though it does not quite fall into the trap of blatant emotional manipulation.  For most parts, the film's earnest approach to storytelling allows the viewer to absorb the characters and the music that they play and sing, but sometimes it gets too comfortable in its own conventional trappings. 

Julie Tan gives the best performance of the lot and slowly becomes the main anchor that holds the narrative together.  She comes into her own against the boys, and her character's overprotective and feisty mother. 

That Girl in Pinafore will please folks, particularly schooling youths.  While it may not be the quintessential National Day comedy that Singaporeans have been used to over the years, Chai’s film is a welcome entry to a month of celebrating most things local.

Verdict:  A sweet and earnest 'xinyao' inspired romance film that feels too comfortable in its own conventional trappings.

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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