Director: Boo Junfeng
Cast: Joshua Tan, Bobbi Chen, Elena Chia, Tan Bee Thiam
Plot: Just prior to his mandatory enlistment into the Singaporean army, a series of events and disclosures threatens to alter an 18-year old's world view forever.
Rating: NC16 for mature themes and some sexuality.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Although it made waves at the Critics’ Week in Cannes, Sandcastle receives only a splash from me. But it is an encouraging one, a playful slap on the water, rather than a reaction of so-so-ness. Singaporean director Boo Junfeng’s first feature film is a promising debut, a composed effort that with good word-of-mouth would attract a fair share of viewers. The film, while not autobiographical, has a story that is loosely based on Boo’s life experiences. It is part family drama, part rooted in Singapore history, and is quite an excellent take on the Singaporean culture.
Sandcastle explores the relationship between the older and younger generation of Singaporeans through the lives of one particular family. Boo focuses on the lead character, En (Joshua Tan), who plays a typical 18-year old teenager, who while waiting to enlist for National Service discovers the secret past of his late father through his grandparents – his grandfather’s old videos and photo negatives kept in a box, and the remnants of past memory from his Alzheimer-ravaged grandmother.
Boo’s film opens with a reel of archival footage documenting briefly on the fervent political scene in the fifties, where passion drove many of the Chinese “protesters” to stage rallies against unpopular government policies. This is set to a Mandarin choir rendition of a poignant Singaporean song, "Home", immediately creating a “patriotic shared memory” of the past by those who may or may not have been around during that tumultuous chapter of Singapore history.
Boo stressed in a dialogue session that his film is not meant to be political and should be read as a social study of that “patriotic shared memory” that continues to bind Singaporeans across all generations together. However, I feel that his film is an observation (or even an indirect criticism) of the state of Singaporeans’ perception of their political role in society. Where has that fervor gone to? Has it just simply dissipated over a generation? Are we happy to lose our voice just because things are going so well for us?
Sandcastle is slow-moving, almost poetic in its visual style with shots of a moving ship passing through the harbor, and still shots depicting the serenity of urban dwelling. Boo’s film is consistently melancholic in tone, which is a plus point for me, because it creates a quiet feel of sadness for the nostalgia of the past. The characters, however, are not quite fleshed out to their fullest, resulting in only a slight emotional attachment to them. The acting is also only above average in that respect.
Sandcastle is a half-decent film that impresses only to a certain extent. It is never a landmark of contemporary Singaporean cinema. But Boo shows that he has the potential to elevate his game, to probe at issues of our society through his personal stories. If he sticks to this direction and slowly improves on the quality of his output, he will be one to look out for, and also one to be remembered in decades to come.
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