"Untuk Bangsa Dan Negara! MAJULAH!!!"
That was the war cry that Uncle Choo Seng Quee (Lim Kay Siu), Singapore's, and possibly the region's most well known footballing coach extraordinaire, instilled in his handpicked charges, as he led the quest to win for Singapore the Malaysia Cup and to lift Singapore football from dire straits through the process. And it's no surprise why writer-director Cheng Ding An wanted to release this movie this month, as it has heart thumping patriotism written all over it.
What came before the feature was the short film, and the subject of having a Singapore football movie though is nothing new, with the documentary The Kallang Wave being released last year, which looks at how football gelled a nation together, truly sans race, language and religion. And in fact, the 70s football team at a time where they wore blue instead of the distinct red of today, brought football magic to the masses and weaved the fabric of a nation together, as almost everyone cheered our local heroes on in their, and our quest for football glory, even though it might just have been a tournament with our immediate neighbours and their state teams. This was the era that captured the imagination of a budding nation mere years after Separation, and I think even today, with no due disrespect to the current team, that fervent support can't seem to be replicated of late.
I recall my own fervent support for our Singapore Lions back in the late 80s and 90s, and under the stalwartness of the late Uncle Choo, here's how the Kallang Roar got started, and the reputation of the 55,000 seater National Stadium becoming the lions' den where opposition gets cowed into submission not only through superior footballing skills and tactics, but also through the support of the live wire crowd, who spare no hesitation to let everyone, from players to the referee, know their thoughts.
And I'd bet the filmmakers went through a lot of pain to get the casting done right. While Kay Siu might have been a shoo-in for the role of Uncle Choo, and with wife Neo Swee Lin playing his reel wife Auntie Choo as well, the challenge which I thought was fully met, was the relentless search and discovery of rookie and experienced acting talent to fill the huge shoes of the idols of the past. We have Anwar Hadi Bin Ramli as Gelek King Dollah Kassim who also played out like the joker of the team, the real son of Quah Kim Song - Leon Quah - playing the role of his dad (I really wonder the tremendous amount of stress that he'll probably be under!), Bhaskar Subramanian as S Rajagopal the banana-kick specialist, Melvinder Kanth as Samad Allapitchay the defensive rock and team captain, Rei Poh as goalie Edmund Wee, and Randall Tan as Mohammad Noh, whose romance with singer Rahimah Rahim was also featured in the movie (yup, you read Randall's role right).
Needless to say, the actors have to go through some boot-camp to really live up to the skills of the football legends they are playing. Some would have expected a lot more football action, with the likes of Goal! setting the benchmark as far as fusing CG-ed football actors and real life stars together in the same scene. However, those coming with this mindset will be a tad disappointed, and I can't actually deny that fact. It's already quite rare to be able to watch our local heroes of yesteryears charm with their skills on the pitch, as television newsreels do not make for anything beyond the small screen. Here, scenes have to be carefully crafted to resemble those from memory and history, so unfortunately, most of the games only got featured through inter-titles designed as newspapers, and what mouth-watering games those could have been if recreated on the big screen! What we get though, are only those precious few minutes in the the 1977 Malaysia Cup semi-final against Selangor, and the final against Penang, as brought to us by commentator Brian Richmond, shot very tightly, and thumbs up definitely to be given in trying to enact it kick for kick (though I thought I saw an out of play situation being awarded a corner kick).
Outside of football, the individual characters have their respective back stories to fill up the 88 minutes run time, however, it is these stories that came across as rather bland and weak, with depth and gravitas absent for the most parts. A football team consists of 11 regular first team players, and more than half were reduced to faceless caricatures wearing blue. Of course attention has to be paid to the handpicked stars of Uncle Choo's squad, and each of them do have little challenges to fight against, such as the rocky love life of Noh, the threats of bookies on Samad, Kim Song's lack of confidence and Rajagopal's struggle with the bottle. The constant nagging that football has no future rings loudly through in the movie, until of course our merry bunch of trailblazers can demonstrate that with victory comes glory, and indeed, a viable future in the sport.
But this movie is really about Uncle Choo, and plays out like a homage to him. He comes across as a shrewd tactician like Arsene Wenger, while coming with pedigree background and equipped with dishing out his own firebrand hair-dryer effect on his players ala Sir Alex Ferguson. Offering his services even for free, and waiting patiently for 10 years to finally be called up and appointed by FAS Chairman Nadesan Ganesan (Santhanaram Jayaram), he has to do battle on many fronts - the personal with his relationship with his wife and his diabetic condition, the professional with his passion and dedication to his Lions, and handling all the boardroom battle with the suits in the FAS, who were made to look quite silly with plenty of yes-men sitting around a large table. That I felt was quite a not so subtle swipe at the authorities, whose pettiness and inability to take criticisms see that our sports get stagnated due to petty infighting and disagreements. You also can't help but to chuckle at the insistence of paper qualifications, as Ganesan rightly put, since when do you need a degree to kick a football?
All in all, as a debut feature film, Cheng Ding An did an adequate job to capture the spirit of the 70s here, and this film serve as an important snapshot of our early sporting heroes in their heydays, charting their progress under a master motivator and inspirational coach, just as how any self-respecting sports bio-pic will do. And our football history has enough fuel for a sequel to be made too, given a more colourful, and eventful 80s and 90s, as can be seen here. The final shot of the movie too also left doors open, so it's no prizes guessing if a sequel would be made, should this installment prove successful.
Relive the days of Singapore's glorious football past through The Kallang Roar movie. Sir Matt Busby has his Busby boys, and Singapore's own Uncle Choo Seng Quee has his Singapore Lions! Majulah!