Sandcastle solidly built

As Singapore tries to foster an indigenous film industry, we’re going to need authentic stories that speak about ourselves as a people and society. It’s no use taking a generic story (Superheroes, anyone?) and transplanting it into our public housing estates or the backlanes of Little India. The result will appear forced and clichéd. Of course, the river of human experience has been flowing for so long, no story that we have is without parallel from some other society or some other time. Yet, familiar or not, there are stories that poignantly touch on some part of our collective consciousness that we can instantly recognise as our own.

Sandcastle tells one such story.

On the surface, the storyline seems a little commonplace:

While the family home undergoes repairs and remodelling, an 18-year-old goes to stay with his grandparents. The grandfather shares with the boy a box containing old photographic negatives and letters; perhaps in it may be found the answer to a mystery about his father, the boy hopes. The father died of cancer a few years ago, but the funny thing is, even when he was alive, he was always in Malaysia. However, before the boy manages to ask his grandfather all that he wants to ask — getting little further than the fact that the father was somehow involved with student protests in 1950s Singapore, the old man dies. Now all that’s left are the grandmother in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease and his own mother who will not talk of the past. And the box.

Meanwhile, the mother is seeing an army officer named Wilson, and the boy is lusting over a girl in the next apartment.

Sandcastle is not a gripping whodunnit. By about the halfway point, you may be able to piece together the explanation for the father’s absence. Yet, the second half of the story is not redundant. It develops, very gradually, the second mystery — why the mother’s silence.

Young filmmaker Boo Junfeng demonstrates a sureness of touch that belies the fact that he’s only twenty-something and this is his first full-length feature film. Already, he has made waves: Sandcastle was the first local feature film to be screened at the International Critics’ Week at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“I’m really happy. It’s a dream come true for me to have my first film presented at Cannes Critics’ Week… I see this as part of my learning process and am really looking forward to interacting with the audience and film critics at the festival,” said Boo, who is currently working as Multimedia Director on Singapore’s 2010 National Day Parade with veteran singer Dick Lee.

On the film’s selection, executive producer Eric Khoo commented, “I am thrilled that ‘Sandcastle’ will be the first Singaporean film to platform at prestigious Critic’s Week. Junfeng once again has surpassed our expectations for his first feature and done us proud with the Cannes selection.”

— Today newspaper, 20 April 2010, Singapore’s ‘Sandcastle’ goes to Cannes

To mention another feather in Boo’s cap, Sandcastle has been picked for international distribution by Fortissimo Films.

See also Ng Yi-Sheng’s interview with Boo in the civiclife blog.

Technically, the work is as good as it gets. Stylistically, however, it’s one of many. Too many films have now been made, particularly in Singapore, with minimal dialogue and lots of brooding scenes. In a way, it is realistic: many local teenagers, even adults, communicate with family in curt, truncated ways. But filmmakers need to be aware of the danger of being stuck in a rut, doing more and more of the same.

In several ways, from storyline to cinematography, Sandcastle is strongly reminiscent of Boo’s earlier short films Tanjong Rhu and Keluar Baris. Tanjong Rhu too was a double-layered narrative with the present-day story peeling away to uncover something that happened in the past (in this case, police entrapment of gay men) while Keluar Baris had a somewhat alienated young man on the cusp of being called up for compulsory military service, just like the protagonist in Sandcastle.

There’s nothing wrong — in fact, everything praiseworthy — about an artist working and reworking a theme, each iteration taking it closer to perfection. Unfortunately, cinema is also a brutally competitive commercial businesses, and audiences tire of a formula very quickly. How to strike a balance is itself an art.

The other thing that worried me a little as I watched the preview, was how accessible the film may be to foreign audiences. Not only them: how accessible is it to younger Singaporeans who are not politically aware? While the subtlety of unspoken knowledge between filmmaker and his audience has a fineness to it, and a deft insertion of a little dialogue helps greatly, e.g. when the 18-year-old asks a schoolmate to explain to him whether the student protesters of the 1950s were communists, is it enough?

Even more subtle is the allusion of some sort of Faustian bargain the mother character made in the film, but the references that Boo uses to make this allusion are, I fear, recogniseable only to Singaporeans. Audiences outside Singapore may miss out on the moral tale that Boo is trying to convey.

In this respect, I suspect insufficient dialogue is a weakness. I wonder if this film needs two versions, if it doesn’t already have them: One with additional dialogue scenes shedding more light on the historical context and the present “bargain” — dialogue giving a chance to the characters to express a bit more of the dilemma they went though in the past and the contradictions with the present — which may anchor the film better with foreign audiences; another version without, aimed at local audiences, for which such additional dialogue will likely seem unnecessarily pedantic.

It is a problem that all filmmakers from small countries face when they make films that reference some part of their own history. The local background is obscure to the wider world, fed as it has been on a diet of Western-centric current affairs. No doubt it feels too like selling our artistic integrity just to get slightly better market reception and commercial returns, but as Sandcastle suggests, this is virtually a part of our national identity anyway. And this may be the price to pay for the chance to tell an authentic story that cuts to our conflicted origins.

5 Responses to “Sandcastle solidly built”

  1. 1 xlandjy 23 August 2010 at 12:18

    Hi Alex,

    Where can I watch this move?

  2. 3 Rui An 24 August 2010 at 00:37

    Interesting. I was at the preview too and I thought that it was in fact the expository bits of the film which come across as a little belaboured. It’s a delicate art certainly – how much to say and how much to remain unspoken.

    But I think a film can be a very dry and even painful experience if it takes on the form of an essay or even a lecture. Personally, I feel that the most powerful moments of Sandcastle are actually the bits with no dialogue at all, and those are the parts in which one truly appreciate the moving image for its ability to evoke; and evoking is pretty much what narrative cinema is best at doing. The documentary form may be a better form for an in-depth historical investigation, though I must also qualify that talking about cinema in terms of the docu-fiction binary is no longer meaningful at a time when the boundaries are constantly blurred.

    The key, I think, is really to look beyond the picture; and it certainly helps that critics and articles like yours are building a discourse around the film which enriches one’s experience of the film. For a film like Sandcastle, one’s experience of the picture has to extend beyond the enclosed space of the cinema. And on the part of the film, the important thing is not that it fully articulates the details of its socio-historical context, but that it stimulates and provokes its viewers into taking their engagement beyond the film to do their own research into the field.

  3. 4 Ken 24 August 2010 at 01:13

    Hi Alex, thanks for your balanced review of the film. I caught Sandcastle at its premiere, and loved it. I agree with you: I don’t think its perfect, but perhaps for different reasons. It is a tad too long, and the conveying of the family’s history through use of voice-over in the reading of the letter is a contrived cinematic device. You get the feeling that Boo is consciously lenghtening his film, a sense that he is trying hard to impress with what is essentially his first full-length feature.

    But I enjoyed it on so many levels. Boo has a gift for story-telling; a knack for weaving elements as disparate as a boy’s relationship with his grandparents to the student movements of the 1950s and 1960s into a coherent, engaging narrative. There is also a consistency and refinement about his cinematic language that is rare, I think, among filmmakers his age. It’s been there since his earliest work, but so much more polish and well-articulated here. The bit about the missing mirror in the bathroom of his grandparents’ home is emotionally arresting.

    I find it touching that Boo has a deep interest in Singapore history. This is rare among his peers (who seem more interested in contemporary issues such as gangs, new citizens, materialism, etc [astonishingly, much of this is present in Sandcastle, too]), and all the more admirable considering his age. I hope that audiences will be encouraged to read up about the history depicted in Sandcastle.

    I was a year younger than the protagonist En in 1998, the year the film is set, so Sandcastle had its nostalgic moments for me. (Nokia phones and iMacs?) Watching En on screen is much like “watching” Boo: En’s desire to look into his family’s past mirrored by Boo’s probing into a neglected chapter in Singapore history, for instance.

    Realistically, I wonder if the film will do well at the box office, and if it will eventually “travel”. Personally, I don’t know if we should be hung up over this. Let’s not judge a local film based on how well it does overseas. Hou Hsiao Hsein’s (an obvious stylistic influence on Boo) films have never been box office successes, and his esoteric sojourns into Taiwanese society, history and politics confound even his most ardent fans. But Hou is an inspiration to many filmmakers the world over, a critic’s darling and a giant of his genre.

    What Sandcastle has heaps of is integrity; it heralds a new dawn in Singapore film, and Boo coming into his own.

  4. 5 Becca D'Bus 24 August 2010 at 06:22

    It is in specificity that we find the universal.

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