Film News Review Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: Baby Queen dir. Lei Yuan Bin (SGIFF 2022)

Charting the birth of the new queer Singapore through the portrait of a queen.

There may be countless jokes around the ever-growing list of letters that make up the LGBTQ+ initialism, but in many ways, that problematisation of clear definition and categories is precisely what makes the queer community so beautiful – the sheer diversity across the rainbow spectrum of identities. And in Singapore, where representation of queer people is so often repressed and suppressed by laws and authorities, any amount of positive media is comforting, and integral towards the fight for equality.

In Lei Yuan Bin’s new documentary Baby Queen, our subject of interest is Opera Tang, an emerging Singaporean drag queen who’s been in the scene for just a little over two years. Coming out as a drag queen on Instagram in 2020, Opera’s blossoming queer life is charted across the film, from competing in vogue competitions to attending Pink Dot, to intimate conversations with her partner, or going to church with her family (out of drag, of course). Through the film, we gain a portrait of a young, talented drag queen unafraid to embrace all that life throws at her, and being her absolute truest, freest self amidst the confines of conservative Singapore.

Throughout Baby Queen, the overarching theme we seem to see is juxtaposition. Each time Opera gets into her signature drag, often a flurry of pink amidst striking Chinese Opera-inspired makeup, it stands in stark contrast to the comparative dullness of her surroundings in Singapore. To see an extraordinary drag queen in ordinary settings feels surreal, and in many ways, simply by existing and standing out seems a quietly political act, insisting on making one’s self visible against the tyranny of the ordinary, glamazons in the midst of HDB flats.

That’s not to say that the times Opera is out of drag are any less powerful, and Lei Yuan Bin manages to capture quieter, domestic moments that are often the key to the emotional core of Baby Queen. We catch glimpses of her as a boy, tapping away at a laptop alone in co-working spaces, or walking her grandmother along the sidewalk. Opera is very much a devoted family person, living with them, and maintaining close relationships with them. Which is what makes the revelation of how recount her painful coming out process to her parents even more devastating, even when we see both Opera’s parents in frame, smiling and having fun playing dress-up or looking back on old photos, their relationship now mended and accepting of their queer son given enough time.

The idea of juxtaposition continues on with moments such as Opera, out of drag, sitting at the soccer pitch waiting for her partner to finish, a curious, almost out of place image of a more femme queer person amongst a hypermasculine sport, or devoutly praying during a church service, an institution prominently known as being anti-queer. There is a kind of bravery then for Opera, donning her long hair, participating in such heteronormative activities in spaces where a queer person is likely to feel least safe, just for existing in such spaces.

Thankfully, the subtle hostility is kept to a minimum, and Opera is also surrounded by a cast of supportive friends and family. Co-star and drag sister Ada Heart becomes a source of humour and, like her name suggests, heart, as they put on drag together, kiki, and go out to events. There is an unbridled, unfiltered joy to their banter, as they let loose completely at the clubs. Watching as Opera competes at the Pink Kiki Ball, you feel the triumphantly queer environment watching the audience cheer her and the other drag competitors on, one of the highest forms of praise and achievement a drag queen can achieve for now, validating their art.

Opera’s own partner also features prominently during Baby Queen, and the two share some genuinely sweet moments together as a couple. In the comfort and privacy of Opera’s room, they exchange a chaste kiss, while telling stories of the toxicity within the gay community, and Opera’s own fluid gender identity. At the beach, the two of them attend to Opera’s partner’s young niece, and for a moment, it feels like the three of them look like the snapshot of a modern queer family, as they lie on the picnic mat.

Most endearing of all however is Opera’s own grandmother, who is essentially a main character throughout the film. Representing the older generation, Opera’s grandmother is a small, charming woman, and a force to be reckoned with as a seamstress, priding herself on sewing Opera’s mother’s wedding gown, with her skills passed down to Opera. She does not judge, even going so far as to allow Opera to give her a drag makeover while they trade dark humoured exchanges, and by the time the transformation is complete, grandma is a changed woman, de-aged by at least 40 years and dressed in a glittering samsui woman outfit. Later on, she even accompanies Opera to Pink Dot 2022, holding up placards and enjoying the atmosphere.

Towards the end of the show, grandma provides the soundbite that encapsulates what Baby Queen hopes to achieve: in asking her whether two men can ever get married, she echoes the government and church’s stance, that only a man and woman can ever be betrothed. Yet as a follow-up, she acknowledges that two men can indeed love each other, as love is a private act between two people, subtly showing how she has accepted her queer grandson for who he is.

As the film draws to a close, Opera has cut her hair and snipped her long fingernails, getting ready to don a different kind of drag, one that he keeps buried out of sight – his SAF uniform. Following him in full No.4, on his way to reservist, it is a curious end to the film that highlights how Opera has learnt to put on different masks and faces in her public and private life, to demarcate the separation of her queerness from her responsibilities to the country, and that there remains some way to go before she can fully come out to anyone and everyone without fear.

Coming hot on the heels of the historic repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, Lei Yuan Bin’s new documentary Baby Queen makes a strong case for the next step towards equal rights – that of changing hearts and minds of the general public to at least accept co-existence. Watching as Opera sashays down Raffles Place in drag, fierce, confident, and fully realised, we understand that it is the embracing and welcoming of queer individuals, and their colourful, multifaceted identities that makes the world that much more beautiful.

Baby Queen plays on 30th November 2022 at Projector X Picturehouse, Yangtze. Tickets available here The screening will also act as a fundraiser for SGIFF, including a live drag show. More information available here

SGIFF 2022 runs from 24th November to 4th December 2022. Tickets available here

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