REVIEW: Joanne Peh's 'Last Madame' is an edgy local drama with underwritten characters

SINGAPORE — There was much talk about Joanne Peh’s nude sex scene with Jeff Chou in Last Madame, the first Mediacorp drama to be rated M18 (you’ll only get to watch it on streaming platform Toggle). But that’s not the scene you need to worry about with regard to its “mature” content.

In case you’re squeamish about gore, I have a Public Service Announcement to get out of the way: 14 minutes into the first episode, with no warning whatsoever, you are treated to a scene of AN ARM BEING CHOPPED OFF A CORPSE WHILE BLOOD SPLATTERS ON THE WALLS. And I mean that you see the “elbow” and “flesh” that is being repeatedly hacked at. Not even shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones spring such graphic images on you with no context.

I’m not against the depiction of violence when the story calls for it. There is another memorable scene where Brandon Wong (who usually acts on Channel 8) grinds a knife into a character that he’s torturing, and the violence really adds to the story and sheds light on characters in that case.

I have to say right off the bat that I laud Mediacorp’s attempt at making an edgy drama with daring scenes and high production value that would never be aired on free-to-air television. But the characters and storylines in Last Madame, produced by Ochre Pictures, still leave much to be desired.

Last Madame is framed early on by a whodunnit structure as Fung Lan (Joanne Peh) is investigated by police as a suspect in a couple of murder cases. But this structure is abruptly abandoned later on for a baffling subplot involving the pursuit of a Japanese spy.

The cast of Last Madame does an admirable job with the script that was given to them.

Joanne Peh cuts an imposing figure as Fung Lan, the steely mama-san of House of Phoenix (Fung Wong Gok), the most prestigious brothel in Singapore circa the 1930s. All the elites of society – colonial officials and rich businessmen – are her clients.

Fung Lan takes hapless girls under her wing as prostitutes, which is her way of sheltering and protecting a community of women during a period when females were oppressed by a harsh and cruel society. It’s a layered and compelling character, but the script doesn’t do Peh’s performance justice.

Canadian-Taiwanese actor Jeff Chou also turns in a fine performance as upright policeman, Inspector Mak, Fung Lan’s love interest.

Lina Ang plays Fung Lan’s efficient mah jie matron, Ah Yoke. Brandon Wong is menacing as Lou Seh, the boss of secret society Sum Hup Wee. Amanda Ang is another actress of note, playing Soh Fan, Fung Lan’s confidante.

Fung Lan and Inspector Mak engage in a love-hate romance, but I found it hard to figure out what they liked about each other, other than their bonding over Thomas Hardy novels.

The 12-episode series’ runtime is divided equally between the main 1930s story and a parallel B-story set in the present day involving Fung Lan’s great-grandaughter, Chi Ling (Fiona Fussi), who must decide what to do with the shophouse she’s inherited, which used to be the House of Phoenix.

The contemporary subplot is a love triangle featuring newcomers Fiona Fussi, Ky Tan and Alan Wan, who all provide great eye candy for what is a really boring story with an overly laboured connection to the 1930s storyline. The show could have done away with this subplot entirely and focused on fleshing out the main characters and story in 1930s Singapore.