I've heard about the Cages project for some time, having read about its travels to festivals abroad, earning commendable reviews, and it's not difficult to understand why.
With Cages, the definition of a "Singapore film" struck me a little - how do you classify or qualify one? Does it have to be directed by a local, or so long as it gets set in Singapore? Does an international cast help in boosting recognition, or must it be strictly acted by local talents? In fact, I thought it doesn't really matter. Cages is written and directed by American Graham Streeter, and features a mixed cast of local and prominent faces from abroad. Perhaps it is this mix that allowed for unique ideas to be blended, like One Last Dance earlier this year, resulting in that special mix incorporated into a truly international "local" movie. And perhaps, these served as its strengths.
One of the first things about the movie that you'll inevitably agree upon, is that the cinematography by Mark Lapwood is brilliant. It brought about a romanticized look to our sunny little island, similar to another local movie from last year - Gloria Chee's Smell of Rain. Be it indoor, or outdoor shots, the dim insides of a shophouse or the congregation of bird lovers in purpose built parks, it's quite surreal and strikingly beautiful to look at, causing you to do a double take wondering where in Singapore it's shot at, though at times the narrative did make it seem like one of those snazzy tourism board commercials.
Cages tells the story of a single mother, Ali (Tan Kheng Hua) and her blind son Jonah (newcomer Dickson Tan). Having unable to hold down relationships, theirs is a frequent shifting of accommodation, depending on Ali's lover of the moment, and circumstances led her to her father's place, going there much against her wishes, but without any other choice. We then begin to enter the lives of the three. Tan, the father, played by the late Makoto Iwamatsu, seemed to have let Ali and her mother down, having walked out when she was young. Ali, reluctant to reconcile and unable to forgive. And Jonah, sheltered because of his inability, and now given the opportunity to come out of his shell, and to possibly heal long suffering rifts.
To some, it might be difficult to sit through the story as the pace is deliberately measured. It had a distinct feel of an American indie movie about dysfunctional families, and felt obligated at times to include cursory characters to highlight Singapore's multi-racial society. Nonetheless, in weaving its tale of hope and forgiveness, it did so against an interesting backdrop, taken from a rarely seen and fading subculture of bird rearing, and bird song-singing appreciation. A popular pastime amongst the older generation, this film earns its "local stripes" of merit for capturing this aspect of society, in its buildup to the fictitious Ang Mo Kio Songbird Championship, before it's soon to be forgotten.
The performance of the cast is nothing short of excellent, though there are some momentary lapses into over dramatising their characters. Makoto Iwamatsu was perhaps the best performer amongst the cast, layering his Tan with more than meets the eye, from caring, pained parent, to a man with skeletons hidden firmly in his closet. Tan Kheng Hua, more familiar with local audiences in her Margaret role in one of Singapore's longest running sitcom Phua Chu Kang, allows the same audience not familiar with her stage work, to be exposed to the more dramatic aspects of her craft, through this movie. Newcomer Dickson Tan makes his debut similar to Theresa Chan's role Eric Khoo's in Be With Me, being the narrator, as well as the catalyst who bridges the gap between broken people, disability notwithstanding.
But to those who are apprehensive about watching a serious dramatic movie, Zelda Rubinstein is at hand as a supporting role as Liz, who provides ample and well timed comic relief, though leaning towards dark humour, and relying plenty on her wit. If there should be any complaint of sorts, it'll be the moment of revelation, which came across as a little too contrived, and because local audiences would, I believe, be distracted by the sudden changes in locale and backgrounds, making the shouting match much less impactful.
Cages opens next Thursday at the theatres. Visually stunning, with a subculture brought to life as a backdrop to a story on hope, healing and forgiveness.