For Singaporean funnyman Mark Lee, one of the hardest things about portraying a retrenched engineer-turned-drag queen wasn’t channelling the mental anguish or stepping outside his acting comfort zone — it was mastering the art of sashaying in 6-inch stilettos.
“I actually thought walking in high heels would be easy,” Lee said with a laugh. “You can imagine my surprise when my manager came up to me and said that I had to undergo ‘intensive training’ for this movie.”
The veteran comedian was referring to his starring role in Number One, an emotion-packed, heartwarming movie-musical directed by fellow Singaporean Ong Kuo Sin, that highlights the city’s vibrant drag culture. He plays Chow Chee Beng, a middle-aged white collar worker who struggles to get by after losing his job. Desperate to provide for his family, Chow finds himself taking up a job at a local nightclub and lets go of his insecurities and inhibitions. He eventually takes to the stage himself, with stunning results.
“Just like Chow, I was trying to learn the ways of this strange, exciting, and colorful unknown world of cabaret,” Lee said. “The bras, feather boas, dresses, high heels, and don’t forget my leg hair. I came up with many poses, movements, and body language on stage from scratch.”
The film earned Lee rave reviews back home and a Best Actor nomination at the Golden Horse Awards, to be held in Taiwan on Nov. 21.
Chaired by Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee, the prestigious film festival is often billed as Asia’s equivalent of the Academy Awards and recognizes the best in Chinese-language cinema.
Lee is up against four other actors from Taiwan and Hong Kong but is favored to win. If he does, he will become the first-ever Singaporean to receive the Best Actor award.
He said that the nomination didn’t sink in for him until much later. “I think it was receiving the letter from Ang Lee himself that did it for me,” he told VICE towards the end of his 14-day quarantine in a Taipei hotel. “The more I thought about it, the more excited I became,” he gushed.
“This is our version of the Oscars and I was being recognized for a film which I’m so proud to be part of. How could I not take up the chance to be here in Taiwan to celebrate the film — win or lose?
“Even if I had people doubting my success, saying that I was only nominated for the award because there were bigger countries which weren’t competing, I didn’t care, I knew every minute would be worth it.”
Marred by politics with Beijing, the Golden Horse Film Festival saw a boycott by mainland directors and movie stars in 2018, who staged a dramatic, high-profile walk out after a Taiwanese film about the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement won the Best Documentary award.
Lee’s pride and persistence in preparing for the role paid off and the film opened in October to rave reviews.
“He’s a reluctant drag queen who has many layers to him. At the end of the day, he’s a loving husband and devoted father who takes on challenges and goes from thinking that he can’t, to believing that he can,” Lee said. “And he learns that no matter what happens, you go on stage and give the best performance of your life. That is something I can relate to very much.”
Starring alongside Lee is another local Singapore legend, drag queen and stand-up comedian Kumar, who lent his flare to the film in a cameo appearance.
“Drag queens have their own unique style and Kumar is definitely in his own league,” Lee said, when asked about his inspiration for performing in drag. “We had professional coaches on set in Malaysia, where we were filming, and they told us that it would be hard to fake that kind of authenticity.”
Drag shows in conservative Singapore used to be considered underground entertainment, but they are now thriving in the city’s local nightlife scene and are performed openly in clubs and at special events. As a straight man and one of the best-known faces in Singapore entertainment, Lee admitted that getting into character wasn’t the easiest process. He had to leave all inhibitions behind, especially when it came to the performance part of the role.
“Everyone back home knows me as a funny gangster or sidekick and I am very grateful for that. To be recognized after being in the business for more than 30 years is an incredible honor but I also want to challenge my acting,” he said. “I want people to see me as a versatile artist, someone who can tackle different roles, and I hope that my efforts will pay off.”
“This may be a movie that looks at drag culture but it’s also one about love, humility and sacrifice — rising up to new challenges and being able to look beyond certain stereotypes to see the common humanity in people,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you earn or what title you hold, it’s always a shared and humbling experience when someone loses a job. Everyone has to survive and provide. This story will be relevant to Singaporeans and so many others during this trying time.”