Reviewed by Lau Chee Nien
Director: Royston Tan
Writing Credits: Royston Tan
Producers: Eric Khoo, Tan Fong Cheng
Cast: Shaun Tan, Melvin Chen, Vynn Soh, Erick Lee, Melvin Lee
Year Released: 2003
Running Length: 80 min
THE PLOT IN BRIEF:
A look into the lives of a few teenage delinquents who feel ostracized by society and their family.
In retrospect, I don't think this is a very good film. But it is worth watching because it is clearly a labor of love. And the film deals with a gritty subject that few filmmakers would venture into. Furthermore, there is no denying that the filmmaker helming this project has made an impressive debut and is a talent to watch out for.
So why is this not a very good film? It does not offer what commercially molded films offer - good guys, bad guys and a plot we can all follow easily. As an art film, it seemed pretty padded towards the end. There is a seeming lack of strong content. As a film in general - the novice filmmaker's trades are all there: Parts where dialogue could have been padded with more body language or behavior instead. And if the filmmaker had been a little less single minded in his approach, this film may have "breathed" and presented a more multidimensional perspective.
In all fairness, it is not fair to judge 15 to a commercially molded film. This is a film that is making a conscious attempt not to be another generic piece of mass entertainment. And there are shades of influence from art films with techniques such as long takes (Wong Kar Wai comes to mind).
But as an art film - 15 fails because it feels too padded. The content of this film looks like it could have been presented in a far shorter time. And there is failure to develop the characters more. The backgrounds of the characters also receive shallow disclosure. The harder part - to link the restlessness of their lives to the lack of any adult or family supervision and explore this facet more is lacking.
The second half of the film dwells almost exclusively on two characters. And it is a presentation steeped in too much misery and loneliness. This is not easy to carry off. The film might have done better than present scene after scene that expounds on how lonely and miserable the characters are. When nothing new is presented, the film soon begins to drag. And it becomes narrow minded and weaker as it progresses.
In times where the plot is light and shallow, energetic moments help to carry the film through. Scenes where the characters search for the perfect building to jump off are hilarious. While a little staged, the confrontation between three characters and an irritated woman on a bus is also fun to watch. But such scenes cannot carry an entire film and they peter out in the second half - probably intentionally. And again the question arises - is the content strong enough to fill out a feature?
In terms of the film's primary goal, I think it succeeded. I was sympathetic to the characters. I rooted for them. I understood that they feel ostracized, lonely and miserable. But I was also not able to feel more if I wanted to. The presentation of the characters is admirable and strong, but there is no deeper exploration or development. The characters do nothing to make their own lives better. And we do not get to see any external factors affecting their lives (and enriching the plot). In the Best of Times, a film also about teens living on the edge, we get a much richer experience with the characters. Even though the characters also lead mundane lives, we get external factors affecting their lives. Such an element is missing in 15.
The lack of such dimensions in 15 is another sign of a novice filmmaker at work. And the filmmaker had chosen to tackle a topic that is not easy for a first feature.
But on the plus side, 15 is also terribly exciting experience in seeing how a novice filmmaker makes his way through the medium to bring across a story to the audience. In this aspect, I think the film is successful.
There are some difficult scenes to watch in 15. Tan chose not to pull back from scenes in which we see a character repeatedly slashing his own arm with a penknife and a character getting a piercing through his cheek. But far from being gratuitous, these real-time realistic scenes are extremely relevant and important to understanding what the characters go through.
Tan also made some sharp social observations that are uniquely Singaporean. The reactions of fellow commuters on a bus to a group of delinquents acting loudly is almost spot on (even if the scene is slightly stylized and comes across as staged). Then there is the social divide between the educated and those who do not make it in the confrontation between an English-spewing and Chinese speaking gangs.
Scenes showing a more human and vulnerable aspect of the characters also come across effectively. In one scene, several characters sit on a merry-go-round while discussing the bleak but realistic possible outcomes of their futures. Another shows a frightened and lonely youth alone at a void deck cradling a kitten. And how can anyone not root for those who stand up to ugly human beings who bully stray cats?
At the end of the day, 15 stands out as one of the most creative and daring local films to date. And it is definitely an admirable and landmark local effort. It's a shame then, and I feel that the authorities might have overreacted, when they insisted on the cuts for the local theatrical release.
For Generic Entertainment: Mildly Recommended.
For Film Appreciation: Recommended.
Copyright Lau Chee Nien 2003