The Olive Depression, a film in 8 parts, was originally scheduled to take its bow during last year's Singapore International Film Festival. Out of the blue it got yanked from the schedule of the inaugural festival section called the Singapore Panorama, and going by the synopsis alone, many had wondered if it was the critique contained within that made the powers that be frown upon what could possibly be an attack on an entrenched institution and rite of passage to turn local boys into men. It would have been an interesting addition to the repetoire of local films, because any big-bang action movie involving our armed forces would be somewhat far off, and we only have the comedy Army Daze, based upon the popular play by Michael Chiang, to show for any cinematic effort focused on our army.
Perhaps comedy is the only allowed genre involving our forces, and centered around the 3 months Basic Military Training, which is supposedly the most gruelling because you're the scum at the bottom of the food chain trying to survive a change in culture. The Olive Depression takes one step back and examines a boy's life two weeks before he enlists, and for all male Singaporeans, this inevitably will bring back some memories of our own D-day. For me, D-Day was a tour of Singapore, where I had to report to a nearby community centre, before going on a bus ride to a logistics base to collect equipment, then to the Central Manpower Base for the Oath, before travelling to Commando Jetty for a lunch, 30 bucks in cash, and a one way ride on the rough seas toward Pulau Tekong for 2 solid weeks of physical training. Like the character Trevor, my failing of the Napfa test meant an earlier enlistment, and missing out on my prom. Anyway that's my story, one amongst thousands who had gone before and after me.
Joshua Lim's story and direction seemed to pull back the punches, though they aren't strong enough to begin with. Like how he opened the film in a General Paper examination setting, most of his pointed arguments automatically came with counter arguments to provide balance, be it from church members, older peers who had been there and done that, best friends and parents, and in a bizzare twist of irony, the story conforms eventually to a resignation to fate and what it started out opposing, rather than to stay the course in challenging the norms that it began with, proving to a certain extent that it is futile to resist, and assimilation being the order of the day.
However it does get a little tedious in trying to buy the audience into some of the arguments spelt out. Lines of dialogue felt very heavy handed when it became a preachy platform, and you have obscure moments talking about conflict and competition, how the state can effect true control by affecting the minds of its people, terribly sweeping statements that felt like weak potshots against conscription, right down to complaining about cinema ratings and comments about living in Singapore Inc. Character faces are usually gloomy, but never fail to light up when, in colloquial terms, talking cock. Perhaps this boiled down to a relatively inexperienced cast regurgitating with lack of confidence and expression, the lines from a script rather than being made to feel these are actual sayings you and I will talk about.
It became somewhat of a chore to sit through a talkie-film when statements made were wafer thin and came across as a complaint in 88 minutes, although there were one or two gems with regards made to the state of the system here, where everything's just a formality because they're all spelt out to you for compliance purposes. Ooi Jy's Johnny seldom smiles, because he chose not to, covering up his innate fear of enlistment with some false bravado of being nonchalant and spiteful of practically almost anything. Not surprising of course that his crush told him to lay off her and just be friends. It's not an appealing character to associate or identify with, and somehow was quite a turn off with his pissy attitude. If that's the reaction sought to elicit from the audience, that goal got achieved.
Perhaps it wanted to mirror how many perceive life here, that you're given ample opportunity and various platforms to air your piece, but ultimately you are co-opted into what has been decided and established, and the only choice left is whether you'd want to look on the brighter side of things, or dwell miserably on the negatives that you have little power to overcome on your own. Like how the mother character puts it, you can have your own opinion, but keep it to yourself.
The Olive Depression anchors itself as one of the rare military-themed films of Singapore. If only the delivery had been a little more slick and refined - at times the audio was muffled - and arguments felt less like mouthpieces from atop a soapbox, but after all this is a first feature film, and it's good to know that Joshua Lim has another film in the works called The Seminarian. I guess the only way to go from here is up.
The Oliver Depression is now showing at Sinema Old School. Check their website here for scheduling and ticketing details.
Spoilers for those curious to what those 8 parts are, they're entitled
- Turning 18, Good Attitudes, Like-Minded Companion, Home, Girls, Preparation, The Day Before Enlistment and Separation.