Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Up Escalator Forever: Bowie in Singapore

Ricochet, UK, directed by Gerry Troyna (1984)

A thin white man wanders around a near-deserted shopping mall. It’s night. His drift is purposeless, but he keeps moving. What secret rendezvous is he heading towards? Is he being followed or is he following? Eerie sounds in the background. Muzak from another planet. That’s the clue. Perhaps the walker isn’t human. A misplaced alien sleepwalking through an decentred landscape. He’s come down to earth to look for the past, but instead he’s found the future. Strip-lit walkways and glittering atria; a musical fountain; a deranged architect’s plan for some deluded utopia. But no one’s here. Structures long since abandoned by their original users, now patrolled only by guards and the occasional foreign interloper.

The alien goes where the escalator delivers him. He sits. Lost. Scared.

What is this place?

David Bowie in Singapore is irresistible. But Ricochet, a hybrid documentary-fiction-diary film conceived and concocted by Bowie with director Gerry Troyna in 1983 doesn’t just take place in Singapore. Bowie, coming to the end of his epically long ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour decided that after shows in Australia and New Zealand he would head up to South-East Asia (originally Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Hong Kong, but KL fell through). These countries were not yet on the stadium tour circuit, and so it was a rare and particularly difficult thing to pull off. Ever the innovator, Bowie must have sensed an opportunity to discover something new, and he wanted a camera crew along to capture the experience.

Named after an apocalyptic track off the enormously successful Let’s Dance album, Ricochet, is an atmospheric if fragmented account of Bowie’s visits to the three major Asian cities. Even at the time it must have made for a rather quirky ‘rockumentary’, and now, virtually unseen for decades, it’s become a historical artefact, an eccentric record of ten days of working tourism in Asia in late 1983.

The project began when Bowie contacted Troyna, a young film-maker whose ground-breaking 1980 documentary Deccan, about travelling through India by train, had impressed the star. Troyna recalls meeting Bowie in the Savoy in London, and later being flown out to Tokyo (where Bowie was touring) to discuss the film. They got on well, and Bowie commissioned him to make the official document of what was openly referred to as “The Bungle in the Jungle.” This wouldn’t be a conventional tour-film, Troyna hired screenwriter, Martin Stellman, to draft a rough script, and began the complicated process of setting up production units with fixers, crew and researchers in each city before Bowie touched down.

In Cracked Actor, an infamous BBC documentary about the rock star made in 1974, Bowie had appeared deeply uncomfortable, strung-out and gawkily articulate. Nine years on, Ricochet shows us the remade and remodelled Bowie. Supremely charismatic and suave, he’s a global traveller equally at ease drifting through the airports, hotel lobbies, streets and finally the cavernous stadiums of Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok. He could be a diplomat, a businessman, politician or movie star - the only giveaway is his dyed straw-yellow hair.

The film divides geographically into three acts, Hong Kong, Singapore and then Bangkok (this reshuffles the real order of travel, Bowie flew into Singapore from New Zealand first, then to Bangkok and finished with two shows in Hong Kong). Each segment roughly follows the same formula, follow Bowie as he experiences each city. Then, let fiction creep into the fact of Bowie’s presence. There's different results each time.

Bowie arrives in Hong Kong to be hustled through a throng of fans and press, with paltry security – a few devotees touch his hair. “That was quite a reception,” he deadpans in the limo later to Corinne ‘Coco’ Shwab, his long-serving personal assistant (also in Cracked Actor). Then breaks into a throaty rendition of the classic Chinese song, May Kway (Mei Kwei?) – which he associates with Hong Kong (it’s from Shanghai). There’s a press conference where he talks up the Asian (Japanese) influence on his music and style. We shift to a sub-plot, three slightly fey members of a Bowie covers band (a decent stab at Ziggy) plan to attend their idol's gig, but the drummer can’t afford a ticket, and wanders Kowloon (there's an incredible travelling shot of the washing hung outside a vast tenement) trying to rustle the cash. Meanwhile, Bowie kills time in a hotel suite quipping with a tour promoter about ticket prices (very expensive), watches TV (ancient kung fu flicks, crazy adverts and a colonial Rule Britannia), and dines on a boat with local socialites (with whom he is utterly charming), sitting near the first of a series of ‘mysterious Americans’ who will quietly plague him throughout this leg of the tour (more on them later). Our young Hong Konger friend sells some records to a grumpy music store boss, and voila, he has entry to the concert. Not that difficult. Cut to Bowie on stage, kicking into the inevitable China Girl, complete with mimed self-kissing, and then a high energy rock-out Look Back in Anger.

Now we get to the section that concerns this blog. As the music from HK fades away, Bowie sits in the plane delivering him to the next destination. First we’re in a tranquil Hindu temple, which I’d guess is the Sri Mariamman Temple on South Bridge Road. Bowie, now clad in white suit and fedora strolls around a depopulated, sleepy Chinatown, accompanied by the relentless beat of construction. Passing the street where Jack Flowers has his day-job in Saint Jack, and wanders into Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street contemplating an enormous Buddha and getting his fortune told (we never find out what it is). In a taxi, Bowie has a discussion about freedom and control with a chatty and very open Indian cab driver, concluding with an astonished Bowie asking how people are executed for drugs offenses: “They hang them.” Cue martial music (played by a school band), over a very pointed montage which includes a campaign banner ‘Come on Singapore, work together better’, a man hanging a framed photo of Lee Kuan Yew outside his shophouse, an old building being demolished and a row of blank HDB ‘slabs’ (as Rem Koolhaas would put it). It already all feels very different from Hong Kong, and there’s a reason for this.

Bowie had arrived in Singapore a few days before the gig and found there was a strong possibility that the concert would be cancelled. “The Singapore authorities are not friendly toward rock & roll,” he writes in the diary-like introduction to the Serious Moonlight tour book. China Girl and Modern Love were banned on the radio, and a rumour of an “impromptu guest appearance” at a youth club had, according to Bowie, led police to threaten his local promoter with imprisonment.

This was Goh Poh Seng; doctor, poet, playwright, novelist, night-club and live music impresario. Goh (who died in January this year) was a fervent champion of the arts in all incarnations, including pop music. A year before he’d received the Cultural Medallion, the biggest gong that the Singapore state bestows on artists, but that didn’t stop him facing resistance all the way with the Bowie show, which was taking place in Singapore's largest venue, the now-closed National Stadium. Goh had taken it on at the last minute and it was (at that time) the biggest concert that anyone had ever organised in Singapore. “You need at least three months to prepare for a concert like this, if you’re sane,” Goh told The Straits Times when it was announced, “we’re doing it in one month.” Bowie describes him as “wonderful and fearless.”

Troyna recalls that until the gig happened they all “thought we were going to get thrown out.” This situation isn’t referred to in Ricochet, but a high level of tension and discontent creeps into the Singapore segment. Troyna says that the script outlined the “points we wanted to make about each country", Singapore was intended to reflect “alienation and submission to the state”, but of course there would be a great deal of improvisation. The director walked around Orchard Road and discovered Far East Plaza, Singapore’s newest and (at that time) largest, shopping mall, opened only a few months earlier. It was a suitably “alienating” place. Bowie agreed. So, in the film, while a phone rings in his empty Ming Court ‘Emperor’ Suite, its occupant walks through the night in a black trenchcoat. Heads down Scotts Road and up an escalator to an overhead bridge drenched in blue neon, his yellow hair the only sign of life. The eerie-sinister soundtrack is Sense of Doubt, a Bowie/Eno collaboration (from the Heroes album) which had, two years before, scored a walk through junkie infested Berlin in Uli Edel’s notorious Christiane F. Ironically, here it’s used to lend atmosphere to the sterile sci-fi weirdness of "The Biggest Tourist Shopping Centre in South-East Asia". After his escalator odyssey and a surreal scolding from a diminutive security guard, Bowie sits, looking pensively unimpressed, beneath the glittery kitsch of the musical fountain and a row of fake, plastic Christmas trees. In the Serious Moonlight book, Bowie recalls the moment he faces the Singapore crowd, “I am supposed to say something to the children in the Singapore audience. These children who are doomed to ride the up escalator forever.”

“Can we go somewhere where there are no skyscrapers?” Bowie asks a cab-driver the next morning. Depressingly he gets dumped at Raffles Hotel, passing a mustachioed American, who gets a mysterious sound effect and a freeze frame. Troyna says this little leitmotif (it occurs in Hong Kong and Bangkok too) was inspired by the fact that it was clear to everyone that Bowie was “being closely watched” wherever he went. Perhaps the CIA; nobody ever found out, but Bowie in Asia was bringing out the spooks.

Then he’s amidst ghosts of a different kind. Inside the faux-colonial splendour of Raffles Hotel, Bowie seems as equally apprehensive as he did back in the mall. He’s swapped cold futurism for tropical nostalgia and found both equally wanting. Suddenly we’re back to Chinatown, and Bowie fancies entering a building where a Chinese Opera troupe is rehearsing. Two young women, Theresa and Tsiu-Lien stop to talk on their way to the rehearsal, neither of them seem to be aware of who Bowie is, and insist on asking “my boss” before they’ll let him in. Theresa delivers the bad news. The boss says no, “Sorry ah… how?” Disappointed but unfazed, Bowie promises to try and attend their show that night (after his own). Troyna says that the rejection was completely spontaneous, and it was blamed on either superstition or that “they were worried that they’d get in trouble.”

Although there’d been a conscious effort not to show typical ‘back-stage’ material in the film, the opportunity to contrast the different levels of ‘performance’, the Chinese Opera and the Rock Concert, was irresistible. So we have footage of the lighting rig being mounted in the National Stadium (Bowie writes: “The lights were flown in from all over Malaysia. Many arrived broken, and those intact not much more powerful than a bedroom lamp.”) and Bowie departing from the hotel, while Theresa leaves her cluttered Chinatown shop-house. Out in the stadium a crowd is gathering, watched closely by uniformed police. Backstage Bowie’s interviewed by a fairly hapless young DJ, William Xavier (now better known as easy-listening maven, Mr X) while the rest of the band sit, giggle and mock in the background, not without encouragement from their leader. Bowie turns it around and starts to question the DJ, “What is rebellious here? What does rebel mean?” asks the man who sang Rebel, Rebel, and we see Xavier, well aware of the 16mm camera inches from his face, struggle between trying to act cool and knowledgeable in front of Bowie and giving an extremely guarded, cautious answer (Rebellion in Singapore he explains, has been “kept within reasonable limits”).

Meanwhile, the Chinese Opera has bestowed its own glamour on Theresa and Tsiu-Lien, and they hit the stage in full make-up and regalia, as Bowie, over in Kallang, speaks the first lines of Heroes, “An apposite choice,” says Troyna, and we’re into the gig.

In his newspaper review the next day, Philip Cheah, then reporter for long defunct paper, The Singapore Monitor, called it “the only real rock concert in years.” He pointed out that the stadium was less than half full, “but at least we were heroes, just for one night.” In the tour book, Bowie himself describes the heat, the discomfort and terrible sound; looking out at the blank, other faces, the twitchy armed cops and “for a moment I feel I am playing to the tiger-infested jungle that existed here until the arrival of concrete a few short decades ago.” Then he suddenly connects with the audience and “for one night it can mean everything.”

Bowie performing Heroes is intercut with scenes from the Chinese wayang, so much so that the song eventually seems be placed into the mouths of the singers. Before he turns his back on the audience in the stadium Bowie grins, almost laughing, suddenly, finally happy. Then for a moment, Bowie’s in the audience at the opera, surrounded by aunties and uncles, looking extraordinarily handsome, and Heroes has become their song, Singapore’s song. Its final chords played out over a beautiful close-up of an opera performer (is this Theresa?). An equilibrium is found between music and image. A symbolic moment for a weary showman; performer gives way to other performers and becomes the audience, a final reversal. It’s ambiguous, but it’s also hopeful. And that’s how David Bowie and Ricochet leave Singapore.

Bangkok with its mixture of sacred (temples) and profane (go-go bars) has an utterly different feel to Singapore, it flows... and it concludes with Bowie apparently living in solitude on the river. He seems happier in Bangkok, even his wardrobe is more relaxed (Chinos and a short-sleeved shirt). He’s a civilian here, almost another wide-eyed farang tourist, cruising the clubs and the river. In Hong Kong he was the jet-setting rock star-idol glimpsing the sprawl from the back of the limo. In Singapore he was a stranger in a strange land, a drifter fuelled by discomfort and tension. Singapore makes him the alien. So, of all the cities in December 1983, the Lion city-state is the one that’s the most ‘Bowie-esque’.

Back in the UK, Troyna assembled a cut of the film to show Bowie. They’d always intended for him to provide a voice over, making the whole film a kind of travelogue-diary of the star’s thoughts and impressions. But that never happened. Bowie watched it, liked what he saw. Troyna delivered his version (just short of 80 minutes), without a voice over, and that was the end of it. Bowie sold it to Virgin, and a 60 minute VHS version was released exclusively to their shops, and the full-length Ricochet remained unseen until 2006 when it was included as an extra on the Serious Moonlight DVD.

And in 2004, Bowie returned to Singapore.

Thanks to Philip Cheah, Regina De Rozario and Gerry Troyna for sharing their invaluable information.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

National Day Special: Opposition Parties

A Very Dangerous Game – Series 3/Episode 2 of Danger Man (1965)

(Singapore circa 1965... or is it?)

Patrick McGoohan in Singapore? Sadly, not this time; the exotic Orient encountered by super-spy John Drake in this 1965 episode of Danger Man (AKA Secret Agent in the US) is a stereotypical colonial fantasy conjured up on a soundstage in Shepperton studios with sundry pieces of ‘stock’ footage. No one involved left London. This was the typical strategy for constructing a fictional ‘Singapore’ in the pre-War era. Hollywood had done it many times before, including John Brahm’s Far East noir-adventure, Singapore in 1947. But from the start of the 60s, lighter cameras and cheaper air tickets popularised location shooting, even for b-movies, and by ‘65 there’d been several Sandokan films (based on Emilio Salgari’s Italian tales of heroic Malay piracy) and a few ‘Eurospy’ flicks making limited use of real Singapore and Malaysian locations. This episode of Danger Man, however, was for the telly, and then, as now, budgets and schedules were tight, and why hop on a plane for fifteen hours when you can make any locale in the world down in Studio B?

(McGoohan: Calculating coldness with an undertow of bizarre eccentricity)

Danger Man began in 1960 as a vehicle for the peculiar charisma of McGoohan, an American raised in Ireland and England, groomed for TV stardom by media mogul Lew Grade. The original series pre-dated the first James Bond film; and in retrospect we can see that the weekly hijinks of super-agent John Drake anticipate the entire Eurospy genre, and as the series got more, shall we say, baroque, it paved the way for the stylised antics of The Avengers (and dozens of imitators) as well as McGoohan’s pet project, The Prisoner. By 1965, Bond was big and McGoohan (who had an unusually authorial influence on his own series, even then) was supposedly intent on making John Drake a more downbeat, realistic counterpart to Ian Fleming’s creation. That’s not born out by this episode, which is lightly comic, and, in terms of plot, completely ludicrous; but it’s not without interest in depicting Singapore in the year of independence.

The set-up introduces Simpson, an embittered toff essayed by the wonderfully seedy Anthony Dawson, ranting to a blonde companion about “going out to Singapore to lecture for the British Cultural Mission…can’t get a decent job here in England”. There are many connections between James Bond and Danger Man, but casting Dawson is the most self-conscious—he’d had a part in Dr No and then became the body-double for 007’s pussy-stroking nemesis Blofeld in two sequels. Back in Danger Man, Simpson needs to prove he’s not just any old foreign talent, “You know I’ve got a very big job waiting for me in Singapore,” he assures us, repeating for good measure, “A very big job.” This sounds ominous! Pretty soon, Simpson is in the hands of the authorities, and in an inventive touch the Danger Man titles (with the great demented harpsichord theme tune) play over a silent sequence of John Drake chain-smoking his way through the interrogation (torture?) of Simpson. Ending in a crash-zoom on Anthony Dawson’s beleaguered face. The episode’s directed by Don Chaffey, a reliable pair of hands (who went on to direct Jason and the Argonauts), but aside from this flourish, his work here’s strictly pedestrian.

Anyway, the game’s afoot, Drake will fly to Singapore pretending to be Simpson to infiltrate “the opposition”, a phrase used many times as a euphemism for Communist spies (I don’t think the word Communist is ever used), the writer of this, David Stone, who’d written dialogue for Polanski’s Repulsion, could never have known the special resonance of the term “opposition” in Singapore then (or now), but he should’ve been aware that this was five years after the supposed defeat of Communist guerrilla warriors in the Malayan ‘Emergency’. Reds in the tropics of Southeast Asia were no joke—although as we shall see, this episode is determined to treat them like one.

Before his trip to Singapore, Drake gets a forged visa from Charles Carson, who’d played a spy in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent thirty years earlier, and warns Drake that the Chinese have been playing the “dangerous game” of spying for “three thousand years”. Then he gets gadgets from young Christopher Sandford, better known today as the biographer of Jagger, Cobain and Polanski. The casting in these shows is fascinating!

(Not the Raffles Hotel? Could be in London with a couple of rickshaws)

Stock footage time! A jet plane with the BOAC logo gives way to an impressive overhead cityscape of Singapore—complete with location title. Except it isn’t Singapore, it’s Hong Kong island. Then a glimpse of the Raffles Hotel exterior which I don't think really is Raffles Hotel, Drake refers to it as ‘Hotel Imperial’. In his very sparse un-Raffles-like hotel room, Drake meets the buttoned-up “Director of the British Cultural Mission in Malaysia”—the British Council by any other name. It’s the first of two references to Singapore as being part of Malaysia, which shows that the episode was written before 9 August 1965 (it was broadcast in October that year) or that they didn’t really care too much about the political situation on the ground.

McGoohan has immense fun in this and many other scenes playing Drake/Simpson as an boorish drunk, prone to aggressive body-language and improvised Irish drinking songs – the actor was a notorious boozer in real-life. He insists the cultural director has a glass with him to quicken their friendship, and on being rejected, drops a knowing pun – “No Bond!” Simpson is due to lecture the locals on “the British way of life”, ironic, given that the region has already had far too much of this during many decades of colonial rule.

(The Franco-Chinese-Russian 'Linda Lee' played by Yvonne Furneaux)

One of the more bizarre tropes of foreign films shot in Asia in this period (60s through to late 70s) is the image of the Caucasian woman in a cheongsam (form-fitting Chinese style dress). Whereas white male heroes stubbornly flounder round the tropics in suits and ties, women are more inclined to ‘go native’. Obviously, it’s meant to be sexy and exotic without breaking the ‘taboo’ of inter-racial attraction. Here we have a particularly strange creation, ‘Linda Lee’ played by French starlet Yvonne Furneaux (who’d already acted for Fellini, Polanski and Antonioni) speaking with a bad Russian accent. She says she’s a journalist for the fictional ‘Singapore Evening News’, and she’s got one thing right: “Singapore is such a provincial town in so many ways”. Actually, she’s an “opposition” spy, who calls everyone Comrade and detests the bourgeois way of life. She drags Drake off blindfolded to see her master.

(I want to believe this is City Hall)

More stock footage! A clip of what looks like the road near City Hall, and this is possibly the only actual footage of Singapore in the whole episode, but I'm not entirely sure. There's some neon signs that look like they're from Hong Kong. But as the episode continues, they eventually give up trying and we’ll see some rickshaw drivers zipping through a Shepperton car-park.

('Those rickshaws are very useful)

A more straightforwardly racist trope of the Eurospy genre is the Caucasian male actor made-up to look like a sinister Chinese (Dr No is the most famous, although they’re all descendants of Fu Manchu), and here we have Peter Arne as Chi Ling, with truly horrible ‘slitty’ eye make-up and prone to a patronising bow and hand-clasp gesture (incidentally Arne was tragically murdered in 1983). Chi Ling’s meant to be a paranoid buffoon, who has glass furniture as “a security precaution, nothing can be hidden from me.” He trusts no-one. It’s all meant to be jolly hilarious.

(Peter Arne in Chinese drag)

Chi Ling intends to use Drake/Simpson to entrap the secret head of the British spy network in Malaysia (the second reference to the larger country, which is a big clue as to who the head actually is). Drake is driven off again, and then has to figure out that Chi Ling’s hide-out is actually the Singapore New Press building (see the banner at the top of this blog)! So the “opposition” have taken over the print media! Sadly, this is where the lovely Linda Lee will be shot dead by a Chinese heavy, for no good reason.

(SIngapore: Den of vice and sex)

Still acting sozzled, Drake pitches up at a Singapore bar-cum-brothel, modelled on the one from The World of Suzie Wong, mockingly spurns the advances of a English-accented bar girl, “out of my way you wanton lotus blossom!” and discovers that the British secret services run an ‘Operations Room’ behind a prostitute’s boudoir, staffed by the obligatory Burt Kwouk and Mike Pratt (Randall, from Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased). Here we discover that there’s an even more senior “opposition” leader who secretly broadcasts very declamatory Mandarin (quite a contrast to the barked Cantonese of Chi Ling’s heavies). Drake sets in motion a cunning plan, but not before he gives a talk on English madrigals, in homage to Holly Martin’s lecture in The Third Man, complete with obnoxious questioner at the end (can madrigals can be compared to The Beatles? An unconscious nod to Singapore’s struggle with rock and roll?).

In a double-twist, Drake uncovers that the “Director of the British Cultural Mission in Malaysia” (Geoffrey Bayldon, who’d return to ‘Singapore’ the following year in King Rat) is not only the chief British spy, but also the head of the “opposition”. When this is revealed, Drake darkly mutters “Not the first”, which feels like the one truly authentic espionage moment in the whole episode—this was only two years after Kim Philby and friends had been exposed as high-level Soviet moles in British intelligence. Drake’s plan, to trick Chi Ling into shooting his boss, succeeds, and the punchline calls back the “three thousand years” bit, with McGoohan imitating the Chi Ling’s bow and speech with the odious line, “as humble beginner… would be grateful for enlightenment”. A suitably smug end to Danger Man’s first and last excursion to Singapore.

Cue the demented harpsichord and long live the opposition!