The Teenage Textbook Movie
Reviewed by WenQing
Director: Phillip Lim
Writing Credits: Edmund Tan, Phillip Lim, Haresh Sharma (screenplay), and Adrian Tan (novel)
Cast : Melody Chen, Lim Hwee Sze, Caleb Goh, Steven Lim
Year Released: 1998
Length : 100 min approximately
Rating: ** (out of four stars)
Things have definitely changed since I first read Adrian Tan's bestsellers when I was in secondary school. From him I got this rosy picture of junior college (JC) life, where every day could be spent thinking about BGR (Boy-Girl-Relationships), little studying was done, and everything was inherently happy, young and pathologically optimistic. That's precisely what The Teenage Textbook Movie gives us too -- an unswerving cheeriness which never really seems to falter, despite some more serious parts of the film.
At its heart, The Teenage Textbook Movie is a nice film... not very special or really memorable because it suffers from some weaknesses, but I liked it because of its sincerity. It is really genuine in its attempt to portray awkward telephone conversations between boys and girls (those brought back some memories actually), the important valentine's day date, checking out attractive members of the opposite sex. A little known fact is that the cheeky abbreviation for the fictional Paya Lebar Junior College that Adrian Tan used, P.J.C. are the initials of the vice-principal he served under as a prefect while in secondary school. That made me laugh the very first time I read the book, and came back to me quickly once the movie started.
The film was enjoyable also because it wasn't afraid of not taking itself seriously. Adrian Tan appears in a cameo in the Borders bookstore, reading his own book. He even has a guest spot in the Perfect 10 radio sequences that are part of the voice-over narrative, and anyone who has listened to Adrian Tan debating on television (do we still remember Singapore Broadcasting Corporation varsity debates?) will know he's really quite funny.
But I think that the strength of Tan's story, as well as the appeal of the film, is also its main weakness. Tan's story, like the movie, relies on a deliberately superficial perception of JC life. It's an attractive way of seeing the teenage years of 17 and 18, and especially charming because it ignores all the less palatable elements of teenage life. Yet that's exactly why I felt The Teenage Textbook Movie didn't really hit the spot enough.
Perhaps reading the book when I was 13 and watching it onscreen in my 20s makes it difficult to be fair. Naivete of youth (pre-JC days) suggested that Adrian Tan was representing the gospel truth about JC... but really going through JC and finding out some of its more tangible and gritty details, rather than those that are romanticized, made the film experience come out looking a bit too unrealistic. I don't remember everyone in the first few days of JC being able to drive (my friend watching the film with me suggested that maybe they all repeated a number of years in secondary school and got their licenses earlier).
I also remember that BGR was a big thing on our minds, but it was saddled up with even more insistent pressures like exams, assignments, lectures, tutorials, studying, tests, teachers' demands and ECAs (extracurricular activities). I don't remember everyone in the world having a handphone, and they didn't in the book (though now a lot of people in JC generally do, and I guess that was a necessary update). I remember most of all that things weren't always so cheery and optimistic. But Adrian Tan wasn't aiming for realism, and I don't think that that's the film's fault. I just think that when these idealized notions of JC are fleshed out in celluloid, the things that are marginalised become even more obvious.
At the same time, while The Teenage Textbook Movie really was a good effort, I think it suffered from a pretty jagged narrative. Melody Chen's initial voice-overs were lengthy and excessive, and somewhere in the middle of the film they almost disappeared except for sporadic injections. The intertitles telling us different tips about dating and wooing the opposite sex were jarring in the first 30 minutes of the film, and they also dropped off after awhile when the movie got going on its own momentum. When they reappeared later, they disrupted the flow of the story.
What really made the least sense were the indulgent intrusions of the Perfect 10 Disc Jockey (DJ) into the voice-over narrative, playing songs and just blabbering things that didn't really serve the story well enough. Making things worse was that these Perfect 10 (98.7 FM) sequences were attached to senseless camera shots of Housing Development Board (HDB) blocks (to no real end at all), Holland Village, driving in Orchard Road and somewhere in Simei and locations near Paya Lebar at night. They seemed tacked on and unnecessary. Most of all, they contradicted the bold opening statement of the film, that stories about teenage years should be accompanied with good music. There wasn't much good music, thanks to John Klass, and it got a bit tiresome after awhile too, when songs got repeated (I think there were at least 3) over and over again. Some had lyrics so tailored to reinforcing the themes of the movie that they sounded contrived and a little forced.
However, don't get me wrong, The Teenage Textbook Movie is still an appreciable experience... though I think maybe something has been lost in the translation from paper to screen... maybe it's the feeling that teenage years are wholly happy days. Yet that becomes one of the film's best points when it stops becoming so self-conscious (with all the voice-overs, intertitles and the Perfect 10 DJ butting in) midway, and actually becomes quite enjoyable.
There are pretty good performances too, like Lim Hwee Sze's extremely natural portrayal of Sissy Song, that's exactly how I sort of saw her when I read the book. Even Melody Chen is sometimes quite engaging when she also doesn't seem so self-conscious. I've never seen Caleb Goh and Steven Lim looking so natural on screen before either, so I think Phillip Lim really got the best out of them, and they were quite convincing (even though Steven Lim is obviously much older than all the other JC students). So I guess when it's possible to draw you back into those romanticized ideas of JC life, you can forget the realities, and find pathological optimism fun after all.