Nationhood and history: An interview with Sandcastle director, Boo Junfeng

Ho Rui An

Singaporean film director Boo Junfeng’s debut feature film Sandcastle has opened in local cinemas. The film, which opened in Singapore on 26 August 2010, made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. The film is the first local film to feature at the 49th International Critic’s Week.

The film, which has received favourable reviews, examines personal memory in connection with the broader historical amnesia afflicting Singapore. In the film, we follow the journey of eighteen-year-old En whose worldview becomes radically altered through a series of events. Amidst the taste of his first romance, the death of his grandfather, his grandmother’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease and his mother’s affair with an uptight military commander, he discovers his late father’s involvement in the 1956 Chinese middle school riots. Through this blend of coming-of-age and family drama with serious socio-political critique, we witness the ramifications of this silenced historical chapter playing within En and his family.

In this exclusive interview, we find out from the filmmaker the motivations behind the making of Sandcastle and his thoughts on nationhood and history.

Rui An: I’ve read that it was from observing your late grandmother’s dementia that you got the idea for the film. How did this notion of personal memory expand to take on the bigger issue that is Singapore’s historical amnesia?

Junfeng: I witnessed my grandmother’s memory deteriorating with dementia, how it turned her into a different person during her moments of delirium, and how it affected the dynamics of my family. The original story was aimed at addressing that pain, and the moral dilemmas associated with caring for an aged family member in Singapore. However, my grandmother passed away shortly after I had finished the first draft. While dealing with her demise, it felt impossible to continue with the original thread. I decided then to shift the focus thematically away from the illness and the pain it caused, to the idea of memory, and how transient and mutable both personal memory and social memory can be.

Rui An: What was some of the research you did into that period?

Junfeng: I first approached the subject matter quite innocently not knowing that it was such a taboo. Most of my research was based on materials I had found at the National Library and the National Archive. I had approached an elderly gentleman who was involved in the Chinese Middle School Protests in 1956. He turned down my request for an interview, but told me to refer to a few very useful publications at the National Library. I guess the biggest challenge was in getting people to speak to me. I was more interested to learn about the whys and hows, rather than the whats. I wanted to understand the motivations and emotions behind the events. How did the students feel? Why were their convictions so strong? How did they identify themselves?

Rui An: You were from Chung Cheng High School. Coincidentally, I was from Chinese High, the other school involved in the riots and I realised that even when we are revisiting our school history, that chapter is always glossed over. Most students today still appear to have many misconceptions towards this past. Do you feel the same sentiments?

Junfeng: Yes, we were taught that they were all “communists”. However, as we’ve now come to realise, with the many books that have been published lately, that that wasn’t necessarily the case. Beyond the labels, and what was or wasn’t, I was really more interested to understand what drove the students to protest, and why they were vilified in our textbooks. They were protesting against the government’s decision to abolish the Chinese 3-3 education system, and replacing it with the English 4-2 education system. They saw that as a form of imperialism, hence they protested. So, while they were left-leaning, they seemed more anti-colonial than anything else.

Rui An: Looking at the archive footage used in Sandcastle, I’m really reminded of Tan Pin Pin’s Invisible City. The footage is amazing and it’s a pity we see so little of them. Do you think we are doing enough with our film heritage?

Junfeng: Invisible City is one of my favourite Singapore films. The segment in it with Han Tan Juan walking around Chung Cheng High and narrating his side of the story was very intriguing to me. It was the side of the story I had never heard about, despite having been a student at Chung Cheng for four years. The photos and footage I found at the National Archive were a source of inspiration for me. They were eventually used in the film because they served a purpose in the story. As for the archival materials used in Invisible City – yes they are very precious, and I wish more of them can be seen and made public.

Rui An: You were also involved in NDP this year. And interestingly, we have a couple of National Day songs featured in Sandcastle, the most memorable being Home. How was it like working on Sandcastle and NDP?

Junfeng: I think there are many things about Singapore and being Singaporean that are worth celebrating. I wanted to make sure the multimedia of this year’s NDP was more reflective, rather than prescriptive. In many ways, Sandcastle, too, is a reflection. It is the journey of a boy who begins to reflect and question some of these national ideals.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments