Being keen to track every Singapore made movie out there (not including those which are joint ventures of course), I've been tracking Truth Be Told for some time already, as early as last year when I got wind of the production. I even chased it all the way to the Hong Kong International Film Festival / HK FILMART in March this year, and could have attended the press screening, but alas the clash of timings with a separate event I got to cover, meant I returned home empty handed save for a promotional flyer. Nonetheless I'm glad that it finally got a theatrical screening, and is scheduled to run from October 4th.
Truth Be Told (TBT) is set in an HDB estate. Wait, before you roll your eyes at yet another local movie set in the HDB heartlands, or having its story dwell on the down and trodden, I've got to echo a sentiment made by a local short filmmaker that I agree with. HDB is very much part of our landscape, like it or not, so why shouldn't we have more stories coming out of the estates? Besides, if I put it in a different way, behind every closed door of an HDB flat apartment, is a story waiting to be told. It might seem that these stories are trivial ones that you get to read about in the press, but when in the hands of a creative writer, you get a succinct story that on its own, could stand and engage an audience for 90 minutes.
A first feature film by Teo Eng Tiong and Lim Jen Nee, I felt TBT had a satisfying story, in that it doesn't try to bite off more than it can chew, and smartly put everything to happen within 12 hours, which naturally reduced the number of challenges one might face with production logistics and continuity. Compacting the timeline meant little luxury for the plot to drag unnecessarily, and it kept its even tempo throughout, save for some flashback moments inserted now and then which built the backstory of the lead characters in the movie. I felt that the editing between flashbacks could have been clearer, or transitioned more smoothly (I've always regarded Highlander being one of the best in this aspect), but this is just a minor gripe, and nobody would get lost in the narrative style anyway.
Television actress Yvonne Lim makes her debut foray into local film, and she plays Renee Donovan, who's back in Singapore to take on a new career as a television producer for the current affairs programme "Exposed" for fictional television station Channel 6. With her on the job is an experienced cameraman Damien, played by actor Bernard Tan, and it's your usual rookie versus an old hand, with conflicting ideals and ideas as to the coverage of their content that led them to Blk 33 Bukit Ho Swee, which in actuality, one of Singapore's "troubled" neighbourhoods with a majority of elderly folks living in the old 1 to 2 room flats with dark and stanky corridors.
This presents ample opportunity for the filmmakers to tackle some genuine and real social issues on the plight of those forgotten and left behind in our nation's pursuit of excellence and wealth, without the feeling of being overwhelmingly forced, while holding the cards closely to their chest, revealing slowly but surely, the keys to the mysteries presented. While no doubt enacted and fictional, it captured some stark scenes which we might have encountered in passing as we go about our daily lives, such as that old lady around the corner whom nobody actually knows about personally, but becomes a cruel victim of various neighbourhood rumours, no thanks to the idling aunties at void decks. Or the disappearing cobbler who plys his trade at the neighbourhood centres, and the ubiquitous coffeeshops selling economical rice.
The leading characters here are layered, in that there's always more to the surface of things, though it reined itself in by not being overly complicated and confusing. Like the secrets behind closed doors and having dirty linen not washed in public, everyone is more than meets the eye. And the story allows you to speculate their backgrounds as you go along with the nuggets of information provided, until all are resolved toward the finale. You'll wonder about the Chinese girl having "Donovan" as a last name, the wanting to break the poverty cycle with education and thus an opportunity to escape the rut, and the extremes one would go to forget an embarrassing past when moving on.
But it's not always doom and gloom in this drama-mystery, although the trailers would have you believe it might be some kind of movie shot with content straight from the X-Files. It's more rooted in realism than the supernatural, really. Ample light hearted moments are provided by HDB Tan, a caricature of civil servants who take pride in their execution of various statutory board and government policies. He has perhaps the best lines in the movie and Louis Lim delivered them so convincingly, you won't be faulted if you thought that he really was one of those civil servant types, acted perfectly to a T. Yvonne Lim has shown that she can carry a movie on her petite shoulders despite not being one of the obvious A-listers on Mediacorp, and she joins the ranks of the rare few who have broken through from television to the silver screen, while the veterans actors like Liang Tian and Steven Woon (who had bit roles in movies like S11 and The High Cost of Living lent their heavyweight presence to the production.
In obvious terms, you can only do a first film once, and Truth Be Told is one of the better looking first films that not only looks right, but has a decent story to tell. It doesn't set out to shock audiences with daliances on things like violence, language, nudity, sex or by having itself banned. Instead, TBT presents an uncomplicated drama mystery story which had delivered the best it can. Watch and judge the truth for yourself come October 4th.
After the screening, the directing and producing husband and wife team of Eng Tiong and Jen Nee were present to talk about their movie, and birthday girl Yvonne Lim also graced the ocassion and shared her thoughts about Truth Be Told. The screening was a full house, and there were a number of friends, crew and filmmakers amongst the audience, which made this session the most cordial of all the Blog Aloud screenings I've been to.
Some of the points shared by Yvonne Lim during the session included
- She had grown up living in a 3 room flat, though she had heard about the 1 and 2 room flats, she had never experienced living in one
- During the 18 day shoot they had spent a lot of time interacting with the elderly folks who live in those flats
- The SERS programme will force most of them to move out, although if given a choice, they would prefer to stay put
- The extras that you see in the film are real residents of the estate
Director Eng Tiong revealed that the movie was conceptualized 4 years ago, and he had actually stayed in the estate before. When he learnt that the estate was selected for SERS, he wanted to preserve his memories of the area before it was torn down. He wanted to capture the estate on 35mm, and at the end of the year, most of the residents would be moving out. Jen Nee and himself came up with the story 2 years ago, and there had been 7 draft scripts since. The movie was shot within 18 days, and was completed last April. The reason why it was released now was due to timing and funding.
End Tiong also revealed that the movie was shot on HD and then transferred to 35mm for screening. Through conversation some time ago, and today after the screening, he's a keen believer of digital cinema, and both him and Jen Nee are extremely unselfish in wanting to share their experience of making their debut film. For those interested to learn more, you can always drop them an email or comment on their blog, which contains a wealth of information on the production of the movie, in particular, the post production process.
Yvonne had explained that she had met with Eng Tiong and Jen Nee at a Ya Kun Kaya Toast outlet in Toa Payoh, and she read the script in one night to understand the character and to see if she can perform in the role. Eng Tiong recounted that he thought Yvonne was hardworking given that they had only given the script to her late that night and by the afternoon the next day, she had already contacted them.
Eng Tiong had also introduced some of this crew members who were present, including Chee Wei the music composer, and Amandi Wong, the Director of Photography.
Q: Besides funding, what was your biggest challenge?
Eng Tiong: It's the momentum and the engine, which means passion. Things don't happen for you all the time, and there were pressure from family and sponsors. At one point we ran out of funding, and the willpower to carry on, and the passion was required to drive it forward. In making the movie, everyone learned from experience, which is valuable.
Q: After you have seen the film, did you like it?
Eng Tiong: One word to describe the feeling: "Song!" It's fantastic to be be able to see how the production evolved from idea to script to screen.
Jen Nee: I am my own worst critic, and there is room for improvement. I thought it wasn't too bad since we had limited resources, but managed to pull it off.
Truth Be Told premieres locally on October 4th. Do get your tickets early. Support local movies!
Click here for the Official Movie Website, and here for the production blog.