Movie Review: shifting sands of Sandcastle

– By Ho Rui An

There is a certain fragility to be observed in Boo Junfeng’s debut feature, Sandcastle. For one, the film addresses a silenced and highly sensitive chapter in our national history, presenting its ramifications upon present-day social realities. Through a series of events, this buried history, hitherto nestled within the recesses of memory, is recharged; and the turbulence created threatens to rupture the film’s quotidian facade.

On matters of craftsmanship, the feat is equally precarious. The endeavour at melding family and coming-of-age drama with serious socio-political critique is ambitious, particularly when it comes to matters as touchy as the historical amnesia and misrepresentation concerning the political left in postwar Singapore. It is that problematic slice of history which is perpetually glossed over in our history textbooks, with the proponents of the movement branded as either Chinese chauvinists or communists within the public consciousness. With that, the onus is upon the writing to provide sufficient expository content for the uninformed viewer before even embarking on any critical reflection of that history. That’s tough enough work for a documentary, not to mention a fictional drama, in which issues such as narrative structure further come into play.

It was a close shave, but I’m so glad that Boo, who wrote and directed the film, and his team pulled it off, for this is an incredibly delicate piece of work which demands to be seen by anyone with a heart for the place we call “Singapore” – whatever the word may mean.

Loaded with local issues

In the film, we follow the journey of eighteen-year-old En (Joshua Tan). Amidst the taste of his first love, the abrupt death of his grandfather, his grandmother’s (Ng Jing Jing) worsening Alzheimer’s disease, his mother’s (Elena Chia) affair with a military colonel (Samuel Chong) as well as his impending conscription, he discovers his late father’s involvement in the 1956 Chinese middle school riots. Personal memories become entwined with those belonging to the collective. Issues of identity, both on the individual as well as national level, become at stake.

Joshua Tan as En in Sandcastle

The film is so loaded with issues that it covers virtually all grounds which encompass the postmodern Singapore condition. The grandmother’s debilitation raises the concern of supporting our greying population. There is a particularly poignant scene in which En accompanies his grandfather on a visit to a nursing home which he is planning to move into with his ailing wife – a plan which is eventually only half fulfilled due to his untimely death. In the meantime, En’s sexual awakening is initiated by his China-born neighbour, Ying (Bobbi Chen), while his mother scoffs at the thought of sharing the neighbourhood with uncouth Chinese migrants. There is also a road trip to Johor, in which we see a magnificent shot of the causeway tenuously connecting the two lands. Even religion creeps in at some points, such as when En’s mother, a newly converted Christian, pushes for a deathbed conversion for the grandmother – an allusion perhaps to the recent ascendancy of the Christian elite in Singapore?

There is, however, an overarching trajectory, which unfolds as a negotiation between personal ideology and institutionally prescribed doctrine. While the protagonist, En lumbers through the first half of the film with an indifferent look that offers little clue on his inner world (possibly a flaw in the writing and/or performance), there are hints which point towards his generally comfy and cloistered existence. But a stay at his grandparents’ house leads to him to a rusty box of old photographs and letters which document his father’s activist past. The grandfather, from whom his son may have inherited his idealistic streak, is remarkably verbose in narrating the stories of yesteryear, but his demise leaves En alone to put together the pieces. Unsurprisingly, both his grandmother and mother appear afflicted by a willed amnesia towards this past and remain reticent. Through his own devices, En eventually uncovers the grittier details concerning his father’s arrest and eventual exile to Malaysia and his understanding of his identity, family and the mythos of nationhood is entirely destablised.

His father’s dogged and foolhardy pursuit of his ideals is something which En is unable to grasp. What was his father fighting for? Why was it important? What was this “utopia” which was constantly invoked in the letters the man wrote to his wife? The entire process is a rite of passage for both En and the audience, as the film attempts to resurge the flame of idealism which has been smothered by the shifting tides of time.

Here is where the central motif of the shoreline attains rich connotations. As a space which resides on our geographical periphery, the shoreline is the metaphorical margin upon which memories, experiences and thoughts deemed abstruse, divergent or forgettable tentatively drift away into oblivion before being washed back ashore in an undulating cycle. In the father’s letters, the description of his utopian vision as a magical sea kingdom also points to the vast, open sea as a symbolic refuge for alternative ideologies. But this seascape is not an unpolluted space, for in the distance, industrial ships encroach upon this abyssal sanctuary.

In fact, it is a pleasant surprise and relief that the film’s presentation of the beach manages to transcend cliché. After all, our less-than-pretty shoreline has been so overused in countless local productions. The film cleverly eschews gross romanticisation of the beach to foreground its transience and imperfection in a way that appears convincingly real – particularly so for a country with perpetually shifting shorelines. The aesthetic is almost reminiscent of the Japanese wabi-sabi.

Short film impact

As a director whose roots lie in the short film genre, Boo’s trademark is his economy, which in this instance, can be both a strength and weakness. Every frame is carefully laden with layers of meaning, the visual metaphors are abundant and lucid and the narrative is watertight. There is rarely a wasted shot. All these reflect the filmmaker’s sharply honed sensitivities towards the craft of cinematic story-telling. Most impressively, there is little sense that the socio-political elements are slotted intrusively into the familial drama. In fact, the personal and the social build upon each other to put forth a sophisticated, succinct yet at the same time, tender portrait of a family shackled by its past, reminding us that these are real, human individuals on the ground who are made to suffer the consequences of the political manoeuvring carried out on an institutional level.

Given the sleight of hand necessary to achieve such a delicate construction, the question then, is whether the film ends up being too tidy or even a little schematic. It’s hard not to feel that way given the sheer number of metaphors used, from the eponymous sandcastle, the jigsaw puzzle, En’s damaged hard disk, his grandmother’s dementia to even the cats roaming around his house. Every little gesture is choked with symbolism, which can at times, overkill.

The expository segments of the film are also particularly tricky. Parts of the film such as Ying’s verbatim reading of the history of early immigrants of Singapore from her schoolbook come across as a little too pointed and tend to reduce the film into a lecture or even a social studies textbook. Instead, the best parts are those with minimal dialogue, such as when we watch the images of modern and historical Singapore flash across the screen, playing against a choral rendition of the classic national song, “Home”, or against the lyrical prose which constitute the letters written by En’s late father.

On this note, it must also be said that the archive materials used for the film are astounding – a fact which is only registered when you actually see them projected upon the big screen. It is a pity that such precious documents from our film heritage are rarely exhibited in a context where a fuller appreciation and reflection of their value can be engendered. More often than not, these materials are reduced to kitsch, used to embellish our annual National Day Parades and the like.

Elena Chia as En's mother, Tan Hien

Solid performances all around

In terms of the performances, it is also the silence which creates the greatest resonance. Chia’s restrained depiction of the anguished mother, in particular, forms the emotional core of the story. The wounds which Chia nurses in private are made visible in the very creases of her face inscribed from within. Her every gesture harbours her growing world-weariness and disenchantment – sentiments which her etiolated resilience can no longer suppress. There is also a memorable scene with the grandmother played by Ng, in which we see the character gazing at the immobile, sedentary frame of her just-deceased spouse. The look of incomprehension in her eyes interjected by the flickers of quiet knowing makes for a powerful moment in the film. Meanwhile, first-time actors Tan and Chen also turn in credible performances, although their characters could certainly have been better fleshed out, particularly for the former.

Much must also be said about the cinematography by Sharon Loh. The vistas which Loh construct are deeply layered, fully utilising the architectural planes of both the urban city and of the interior spaces to create intricate compositions. Notably, scenes taking place within the domestic sphere are tighter and at times, claustrophobically so. While this does drive a strong point across about the nature of the space, I would have enjoyed the inclusion of a number of wide shots, at least for the very purpose of showing the level of detail that went into the production design by James Page, which is crucial for re-creating the nineties era in which the film is set.

In all senses, Sandcastle is old school film-making at its best. Sure, Boo’s understated style is much less exciting then the stylistic flourishes of some of his peers, but in any community, there will always be a need for that crucial crop of filmmakers with a knack for good old story-telling and the ability to condense issues of social importance into narratives that would endure within the public consciousness. These are the narratives which would go on to become important and cherished documents of the era from which they hail. Years from now, we would greatly yearn that more of such films were actually made, without which our amnesia would have hardened into apathy and cynicism.


Sandcastle is now showing in cinemas


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September 2010