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.