In 1977, "Saturday Night Fever" catapulted disco into the pantheon of mainstream culture, spawning a seemingly unstoppable industry of high-tech dance clubs, disco-format radio stations, and dance studios where new converts could learn the latest dance steps. With the help of the seminal disco movie, disco fever quickly spread beyond the bounds of North America, infecting the youth of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In the bubble-gum romance "That's The Way I Like It", first time director Glen Goei gives us a glimpse of Singapore in 1977 and how a case of "Saturday Night Fever" forever changes the life of a young man lacking ambition and direction. And though Goei's East-meets-West homage to the Seventies could have used some polishing, "That's the Way I Like It" is still a fun diversion with enough infectious charm to put a smile on your face and a song in your heart.
When the story begins, Ah Hock (Adrian Pang) is a shiftless supermarket clerk who spends his days at a dead-end job while daydreaming about roaming the countryside on a motorcycle. He lives at home with his old-fashioned parents, where he is constantly berated for not being as industrious as his younger brother Leslie (Caleb Goh), who is studying hard to become a doctor. Locked into the same pattern day after day, the trajectory of Ah Hock's life is flat... that is, until he is struck with an epiphany from the silver screen.
One night, he is reluctantly dragged out to a movie theater by his friends where "Saturday Night Fever" is showing. At first, Ah Hock is bored, as he sports the attitude that 'dancing is for queers'. However, all that changes when Travolta graces the screen with his fancy footwork. Ah Hock is instantly mesmerized, and the former Bruce Lee fanboy becomes an avid follower of the disco movement.
Spurred on by the $5000 first prize of a dance contest at a local disco, which is enough for him to buy the motorcycle of his dreams, Ah Hock signs up for dance lessons at the Bonnie and Clyde dance studio. Unfortunately, he needs a female partner to attend the classes, so he asks his childhood friend Mei (Madeline Tan) to accompany him. Unbeknownst to Ah Hock, Mei has been harboring a secret crush on him for a number of years, and she sees the dance classes as an opportunity to have her love requited.
At first, Ah Hock is like a fish out of water, unable to coordinate his moves to the music. However, he finds inspiration in the teachings of his idol Bruce Lee ('Do not think... feel!) and quickly becomes an assured contender for the dance contest. However, a number of obstacles remain on the road to the dance contest. On the first night of class, Ah Hock is smitten by Julie (Anna Belle Francis), a comely professional dancer at the studio, and tries to ditch Mei so that he can partner with her. Unfortunately, Julie's abusive boyfriend Richard (Pierre Png) doesn't react well to Ah Hock's ogling, and uses his money and influence to ruin his rival's chances in the contest. Furthermore, trouble on the home front is brewing when Ah Hock's goody-two-shoes brother Leslie makes a startling announcement at the dinner table, a revelation that tears the family apart.
Seasoned moviegoers will recognize the 'dance as catalyst for emotional and spiritual awakening' plot of "That's the Way I Like It", echoing films such as "Strictly Ballroom", "Shall We Dance?", and of course, "Saturday Night Fever". Like "Strictly Ballroom" and "Shall We Dance?", dance becomes a means by which Ah Hock finds his individuality and the courage to break out of the rigid confines of his life. However, in this film, Goei also dramatizes the struggle for cultural identity of a generation caught between the roots of the East and possibilities of the West.
Since gaining full independence in 1965, the city-state of Singapore has been at the crossroads of Eastern and Western culture. Over the years, the traditions of the majority ethnic Chinese population have given way to the mores of Western culture, including fast food, clothing, movies, and music (in fact, the Goei credits "Saturday Night Fever" for triggering the widescale adoption of Western culture back in 1977). In a country where English is an official language yet chopsticks are still used at the dinner table, the gap between generations is amplified with the Western leanings of younger generations clashing with the traditionalist ways of their parents. This theme dominates "That's the Way I Like It", from Ah Hock embracing dance as a means of breaking out of the rigid routine of his life, to Leslie's desire to live his life as his own, instead of living it for the approval of his parents. Moreover, instead of completely leaning towards a full embrace of everything Western, Goei takes the approach of having his characters adopt the best of both worlds, as Ah Hock learns that some of the 'old ways', particularly the concepts of loyalty and family, still have a place in the modern world. This is concept is also illustrated by Ah Hock combining the moves of Bruce Lee and John Travolta to create some unique dance steps that bridge the worlds of kung-fu and disco.
Throughout the film, it is evident that Goei was raised on a staple of American cinema with the number of films he pays homage to. At its core, "That's the Way I Like It" is a reworking of "Saturday Night Fever". In addition to recreating a number of scenes from Seventies disco movie in the context of Ah Hock's world (including a hilarious montage of Ah Hock trying to find the right 'look'), many of the plot elements are also carried over, such as the older brother-younger brother conflict. Goei also pays homage to Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" in a bit of magic realism in which 'Tony' of "Saturday Night Fever" (Dominic Pace, who does a wonderful job imitating John Travolta) steps off the screen to give Ah Hock some pointers.
"That's the Way I Like It" is at its best when it is on the dance floor, with its well-choreographed dance routines set to a number of disco favorites. Unfortunately, this is also the film's weakness. When the film moves off the dance floor and into dramatic territory, the shortcomings in the script become apparent, sapping the momentum of the story. This is partly due to some dialogue that could have used some polishing (especially Ah Hock's conversations with 'Tony'), some poorly edited sequences, and a number of attempts at humor that are not entirely successful.
However, the area that could have used the greatest improvement is the romance that is central to Ah Hock's development. The love triangle between Ah Hock, Mei, and Julie is awkwardly handled and doesn't have the expected emotional impact, since the motivation for Ah Hock to choose one woman over the other is never adequately fleshed out, and the film doesn't delve into what makes each of the characters tick. As a result, the dilemma that Ah Hock faces is not conveyed convincingly enough to elicit the requisite heart-tugging emotions.
Shortcomings aside, "That's the Way I Like It" is a fun, exuberant, and sometimes silly trip down memory lane, serving up two mainstays of Seventies pop culture, chop-socky and disco, in a reverent yet amusing manner. Though some flaws in the writing department prevent it from earning top marks, there is more than enough spunk in this loving tribute to "Saturday Night Fever" to make for an enjoyable time.