Something is rotten in the state of you know where, and to the movie addressing the darker side of history here like never before, is given the beauteous title Sandcastle. It is an imagery that conjures the innocence of child’s play and the delusion of a political myth all at once, rather fitting for a movie that seems halfway between a coming-of-age story and what almost threatens to develop into a political thriller. The heroic figure representing the idealistic era of 1950s Singapore is long dead and gone here, and the mystery of whatever transpired since – whether say the man was indeed ‘brainwashed’ in prison, is seen through the eyes of his young inquisitive son. And what we witness for the bulk of the movie are pretty much the daily challenges of an 18-year-old boy who is just growing enough facial hair to need shaving, barely legal for driving, and getting himself some action with a China girl. How exciting that can be probably depends on your personal definition of an eye candy, but the contrast between his quotidian lifestyle and what made student activists of his father’s generation tick in the 50s or 60s is clearly the raison d’etre of the movie.
Whatever is lacking here in terms of reenactment of epic history or any high drama – don’t expect a vivid depiction of White Terror like in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A City of Sadness, or a scene of one storming through a kangaroo court like In the Name of the Father – is made up for by the poetic narration and the visual metaphors that make Sandcastle an appealing meditation on a seldom discussed chapter of Singapore’s historical past, whereby many a young student were branded as communists and compelled to sign false confessions in exchange for release. Young director Boo Junfeng has cleverly crafted a movie that does not require one to reconstruct the past convincingly, that instead confronts the suppression of historical memories by way of a family drama about a missing father and a grandmother with dementia. The fear for loss of memories is a prevailing theme here, as hinted at by the childhood video that is converted from tape to computer, the hard disc that crashes and has to be salvaged at a shop, not to forget the jigsaw puzzle, which might admittedly have come into view one time too many as a metaphor.
The reading of the father’s writings as a voiceover is another excellent device, along with archival footages of national day parade and general shots of Singapore’s urban growth inserted subtly during national songs sung by the boy En’s school choir and his English tuition for the China girl. Some reviewer out there has to be having fun by now likening the movie to a Hamlet of sorts. While our young protagonist has the choice of enjoying his comfy protected life in Singapore and thinking no further, his father’s voice like a ghost reminds him now and then of the injustic which has been done to him. Meantime his mother is apparently having a suitor in an army officer who tries to win favour by buying a new laptop for our boy. The man is not quite the embodiment of evil here, just a civil servant with a life that can only be described as regular, and the scariest thing he does is giving one an earful of national propaganda. On the part of En, the only vengeful act he commits is a harmless practical joke, swapping the officer’s presentation disc on climactic national day celebrations with a video of pornographic climax instead. If the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet lies in his indecision, the plain and boring story of our Singapore protagonist is quite simply one of inaction and powerlessness. The ending of the movie consists largely of him being enlisted, getting his recruit haircut and doing area cleaning, images that evoke the routine social engineering.
It is with a cold and distant eye that the movie camera captures the city. The HDB blocks look like a concrete jungle so deep nobody can hear you scream, while the MRT station with a monstrous oriental roof looks simply fake and forbidding. Even the nursing home for senior citizens with its activity room looks so mechanical that it gives this vision of Singaporeans being kept in air-conditioned incubators like robots from cradle to grave. The slow pace of the movie is often a virtue in its depiction of a mundane existence, reminding one of the typical Tsai Ming-liang movies with a pervading sense of urban alienation. But three-quarter down the length of the movie, one does find it unnecessarily voyeuristic to watch our baby boy En doing nothing but caressing a pussy cat. One may also complain of a lack of character development in him, unless you consider that he has gone from jerking off to porn in his room to jumping into the bed of a China girl who lives next door (unlike others, he has somehow no ill feeling towards Chinese immigrants, presumably a sympathy inherited from his father?). Yet the boy who comes across as a space cadet half the time does in fact go through a journey in the movie, and a physical one at that, a trip to Malaysia in a fleeting Wong Kar-wai style, in search of his father’s past. There is notably a grand view of the Causeway, which in this context feels kind of like an umbilical cord linking one to a historic past that one has been cut off from.
The greatest thing about this Cannes-worthy debut is that it chooses to be understated and allows space for imagination whenever possible through subtle suggestions, and despite the loose and much uneventful narrative, the overall structure still holds well. The opening scene of the movie at the beach for instance proves a brilliant stroke; at first all that voiceover talk of an ‘underwater world’ and ‘utopia’ (or “Peach Blossom Land”) that one has turned his back on sounds totally cryptic in Chinese and one is not sure what kind of a wet dream the screenwriter has in mind, but the recurring motif of quiet waters as a source of solace gains significance in the course of the movie and soon comes full circle, revealing our young director Boo as a true romantic.
Since there have been enough loving praises showered on the man, it probably does not hurt however to pick just a few bones with the movie. First of all, being one who has long found political satires by way of slapstick comedies rather tiresome, I was all psyched up to embrace the dawning of a new age, a new approach of say a serious family drama that is sensitive and rich in emotions which just happens not to be afraid of straight talk on political history. Then I see this young pair rushing through the door for some privacy, and the very next second you hear a school choir singing Stand Up for Singapore. That’s a wee bit of a cheap shot that one could have abstained from. Secondly, I demand it to be shown and demonstrated as to where in Singapore it might be possible for one to look out of a HDB flat window and see the action of your neighbour in bed without the aid of binoculars; if that is the case there will be no need for one to have webcam fun any more. Thirdly, I am not entirely sure the age of En’s father (a student activist back in the 50s and supposedly married only at 38) and mother (a teacher who must be in her 50s at least and yet has a colonel as her new beau?) compute so naturally with the ‘current year’ of the 18-year-old son (roughly placed based on the fact that he uses Windows 98), plausibility seems a little stretched. Of course, fudging some chronological details should not be such a big sin, considering that we live in a day and age where even historical pictures can be photoshopped. Lastly, in the dialogue of En’s mother reprimanding him, the Chinese vocabulary could have been more refined, considering that she was educated in a good Chinese-ed school and her character deserves a moment to shine with a piquant line or two. (All right we know she has become a Christian convert, very common these days, but losing her old belief needs not mean her brains and tongue alike have to be zapped, isn’t that too sad and cruel?)
Such minor irritations aside, the biggest question for Singapore’s latest bright new hope in movie-making would be whether to follow up on this success with a movie that explores further on the inanity of the lifestyle we know today (drawing more inspiration from Edward Yang’s brand of the comical perhaps?), or one that further romanticises on Singapore’s forgotten history (less need for political allegories this time?). Boo Junfeng has incidentally said in interviews that getting sources and informants on student movements in the 50s and 60s was not easy, a hurdle that is interestingly paralleled by En’s difficulty in getting his family to talk about the taboo past. (I can so identify with that personally, having experienced first-hand the reticence of Nantah graduates who either reject interviews outright when it concerns the left-wing stigma of the Chinese-ed, or stop at euphemisms like ‘being invited for coffee’ without elaborating on ISD investigations.) Perhaps there have to be more ground-up oral history initiatives to encourage people to share their stories. But as it is now, such content is not entirely absent in local Chinese literature. Turmoil (Sao Dong), a novel by Yeng Pway Ngon which was published in Taiwan and helped him clinch the Cultural Medallion, talks about door-knocking at midnight, and how the mother of a student studying in Singapore would donate to the Malayan Communists simply out of pity, not to mention graphic descriptions on how the communists were killed and their bodies defiled. One has to be forewarned however that the novel is also full of gratuitous sex and in a chapter on the October 1956 arrests of student and union leaders, one would even stumble upon an episode of homoeroticism. Apart from this, there is a novel by Feng Sha Yan entitled The Man In Pursuit Of Sunlight (Zhui Zhu Yang Guang De Ren), which is apparenly about the sense of inferiority felt by Nantah graduates. Anyway, now that Chung Cheng High School has been immortalised on film (Boo seemingly taking a cue from Invisible City by Tan Pin Pin), it is high time too for stories of the ill-fated Nanyang University to be exhumed? Even apart from the Chinese-ed angle, movie directors here can easily draw on existing literature for suspense stories on law and justice. If Once a Jolly Hangman, Singapore Justice in the Dock by Alan Shadrake this year does not inspire Singapore’s own version of Dead Man Walking, one may also turn to a lesser known book for spinechilling courtroom drama – Lee’s Law: How Singapore crushes dissent, by Chris Lydgate, an account of how a Malay labourer was tortured into confessing a murder that took place in 1989.
Perhaps nostalgia above all is the order of the day for now. This year in Singapore which seems more troubled by the problem of censorship than ever, is also a year which has seen expressions like Royston Tan’s Old Places documentary and the hype of a movie exploiting Singapore’s heritage of haunted places, and it is great to see it capped by the release of Sandcastle, even if screening is limited to one cinema. This is a movie which has wonderfully encapsulated a deep suspicion in us, that the true Singapore spirit has long been crushed during our fathers’ generation in what feels like a murder most foul, and the least we can do, is write an eulogy for it.