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Already Famous | Review

Kind of a Big Deal: Michelle Chong’s Choppy Directorial Effort Skirts By on Charm

Michelle Chong Already Famous PosterThe multi-talented Michelle Chong, a notable Singaporean host and television actress, dons screenwriter, director, and lead actress hats for her debut, Already Famous, an ironically titled character study about going against the odds to pursue your dreams. Chong, who’s already famous in her native country due to her presence in comedy shows like “The Noose,” and “Black Rose,” makes for a likeable and wholly watchable screen presence, so it’s unfortunate that the bloated pacing, generic storyline and cloyingly repetitive soundtrack hamper her natural charm and charisma. Distracting flourishes aside, this dreams-do-come-true story is as overworked as it’s ever been, not to mention stupendously unrealistic, as it was even by the time of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel, Sister Carrie. Yet there’s an engaging mechanism at the center of her film, and there’s something to be said for Chong’s ability to keep us watching even if we’ve seen this formulaic character arc countless times before.

Lee Kar Kiao (Michelle Chong) has dream of being famous since she was a young girl in her small Malaysian town, Yong Peng. She lives an unadventurous existence selling televisions, her closest confidante a small chubby boy who dreams of being a ballerina. Her room is adorned with clippings of her favorite television and film stars and she often escapes from her drab home life into the television dramas she so cherishes.

The family’s income is constantly frittered away with their mother’s gambling addiction, and her brother’s salary selling illegal DVD bootlegs hardly keeps them afloat. At the same time, Lee’s elderly grandmother convinces her she needs to pursue her dreams because life goes by fast and before you know it, you’re at the end of your tether. Spying an ad for an audition for a casting call in Singapore, she packs her bags and is off to the city to find stardom, calling herself Zann (a hybrid she invented from the names of her favorite idols, Zoe Tay and Fann Wong). However, she’s met with several obstructions, mainly that there seems to be a small market to foster local stars and that her Malaysian accent is too thick for broad appeal. Taking a job as a Pure Beauty consultant at a kiosk in a small store, Zann meets a host of interesting people in the entertainment industry, and eventually finds herself attracted to Ah Seng (Alien Huang), a young man from Taiwan, working as the coffee boy in the establishment Zann frequents to get her rabid TV fix.

Selected as Singapore’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year, Chong’s Already Famous already has the distinction of being the first title submitted to be directed by a woman, which is considerable. However, the final product is in need of some significant trimming, clocking in at an ungodly two hours, which certainly is not justifiable considering the slim narrative. At its worst, Chong insists on using a repetitive cutesy theme song that garishly seeps into the proceedings every time Zann makes a move to pursue her dream. On a more interesting note, Chong has infused her film with a plethora of notable industry players, from noted hairstylists, hosts, celebrity personalities, and even a Singaporean drag queen, each announced by glaring pink subtitles that slice across the screen and disrupt the action. Traditionally, it would have seemed more appropriate to notify us of these notables in the end credits rather than jar us out of the action.

At its core, Already Famous concerns pursuing your dreams and be yourself not. There’s an overabundance of nods to the LGBT community here, first heralded by Chong’s friendship with the young boy from her neighborhood aspiring to be a ballerina, where they discuss Black Swan and Billy Elliott. Chong points to the television screen to show the child that even “sissy” boys like David Gan, a famed hairstylist, can achieve their dreams. (Likewise, Chong doesn’t seem to pander either, with her depiction of gay cosmetic salesmen, keen on comparing areolas, who also vapidly and disdainfully sabotage Zann’s sales).

And while Chong’s Zann goes on to uncharacteristic success, one can’t help but be allured by her wide eyed innocence and gentle kindness. Her performance recalls a similarly endearing turn by Doona Bae in Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2009 Air Doll. However, in that film, Bae is a sex doll that comes to life and we watch her experience the shortcomings of humanity. To question the validity or the importance of Chong’s journey as Zann is to watch it dissipate quickly, like sugar dissolved in water. We need look no further than her grandmother’s wisdom, who believes Zann will be a sure surefire success because, “You are beautiful and young and you watch so much television,” in order to see that beneath it’s bubbly veneer, this premise is running on empty.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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