1965 is an ambitious film. Its cinematography reveals a budget much higher than the average Singaporean film, and the feel of the film certainly conveys the project’s desire to be seen as a local epic.
Telling the story of “the year when a place became a home” is a challenging task, and there was much that 1965 wanted to achieve. Set in a period where relations between Singapore and Malaysia are getting increasingly tense and separation begins to look like it’s on the cards, the film also attempts to address race relations and Konfrontasi – the violent conflict during which Indonesia sent saboteurs to Singapore as part of their opposition to the creation of Malaysia.
Unlike The LKY Musical – another big-budget, overly-ambitious telling of the “Singapore Story” – 1965 follows the story of ordinary Singaporeans, particularly that of straight-laced Chinese police inspector Cheng (Qi Yuwu) and Malay hawker Khatijah (Deanna Yusoff), along with their families (which includes former opposition candidate Nicole Seah’s heartfelt turn as Cheng’s pregnant wife).
The decision to focus on ordinary families rather than the machinations of politicians, as well as to confine the narrative to a relatively short period of time, does allow one to get more immersed in the story. Unlike The LKY Musical, 1965 features a variety of languages and dialects, giving one a taste of the diversity, as well as the barriers, that people in Singapore lived with before sweeping bilingual policies that pushed English as everyone’s first language and eliminated dialects.
A misunderstanding in a dramatic moment sets Cheng and Khatijah, as well as their respective ethnic communities, on a collision course. The story of the two families is engaging enough, yet does not explore or provide enough context for issues the film actually wants to raise.
The drama that unfolds is portrayed as a microcosm of the racial tensions and mistrust that fed race riots in Malaysia and Singapore, but viewers are left unable to truly appreciate the conflict because the film fails to probe any deeper into the insecurities and unhappiness of each group.
Plenty is also blamed on Konfrontasi, complete with bookended flashforwards memorialising those who were in the “undeclared war” (that add absolutely nothing to the story), but we never actually see any evidence that the Indonesians were behind the stirring up of racial hatred that led to the film’s big riot set pieces.
The casting of Lim Kay Tong as Lee Kuan Yew made big news, and he certainly pulls off the role with the gravitas required, yet the character’s contribution to the narrative is minimal and often even gratuitous. In 1965, Lee isn’t so much an active character than an event that happens to the main leads, sweeping in and out of their lives.
This does jar with the end of the film, where the establishment nation-building rhetoric rears its head in a closing sequence that feels tacked on and appears to undermine the stories of ordinary Singaporeans told all the way up to that point.
1965 is, thankfully, much more than a propaganda film. It is at times sweet and sincere, and generally entertaining. The cast is, by and large, commendable and likeable, although the existence of certain characters added little to the narrative and could easily have been cut.
The stories that we tell ourselves about our country are important, and 1965 certainly seems to know this. Unfortunately, it is a story that tries to tell too much, leaving plot holes open and narrative threads loose.