Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I think writer-director Boo Junfeng has an affinity for the beach and the sea, as seen from a number of shorts he had done, such as Tanjong Rhu, Katong Fugue and Bedok Jetty, all of which have visuals or settings that lingers on the vast oceans and open sandy beaches. It's perhaps an uncanny coincidence that this film had its title being something usually found on sandy beaches, and being the setting to introduce his lead character in Xiang En (Joshua Tan).
It's quite surprising that for a young director he had chosen to embark on intensive research about an era during nation building that's actually not talked much about, being shrouded with a sense of mystery and discussed in careful whispers, where it's rare for films, the last I recall being Tan Pin Pin's Invisible City which had a section devoted to, explore the Chinese student protests in the 50s (Pin Pin also snags a cameo as a doctor in this film). But here Boo goes headlong, never one to back down from tackling controversial subjects in our island state from GLBT issues to entrapment, and Sandcastle in some ways does seem like an amalgamation of ideas and little elements from his shorts, from Keluar Baris' protagonist being just about to enlist in the army, the mother and son relationship in Katong Fugue, shots reminiscent of Bedok Jetty, and a dabble with an historical piece ala The Changi Murals.
If family dramas are your cup of tea, then Boo Junfeng's maiden feature film will be right up your alley. Of the films released this year so far, it is no wonder that Sandcastle made it to the Cannes Critics' Week. It is a mature piece of cinema as if under the steady guidance of an assured veteran, with quality in all departments. But this is no castle built in the sky. Boo Junfeng has cut his teeth with a series of well liked, and obviously well travelled and award winning short films, so it's only a matter of time before we see him embarking on a feature film project.
This is the story of the life of the Tan family, where we follow the life and adventures of En, a junior college student who will be enlisting to the army by year's end. It's a perfect demonstration, and I suppose since Boo was a teenager not too long ago as well, of the rites of passage a Singaporean male at 18 years of age undergo, from education to the lull period waiting for enlistment, that taking up of a part time job for additional income and to pass time, the learning how to drive and the sweet encounters with the opposite sex, and death even, as this is roughly about the age where grandparents say adieu.
I can easily identify with En, and I suppose that's almost the case with many other males out there, as he goes through his teenage life not quite unlike many of us in Singapore. What more, I come from the same junior college, so it's something of a blast to see a small scene shot on campus grounds, and the temasek green uniform. I can't remember if there was a choir group during my time, but I suppose they did exist.
The story picks up when En has to stay with his grandparents for 2 weeks during the renovation of his home, while his choir and music teacher mom (Elena Chia) scoots off for a China vacation with her new beau Wilson (played by Samuel Chong), a military colonel whom En detests. It is this time that En learns, through his grandfather's safely kept film negatives, more about his father Boon (Andrew Seow in what's mostly a photographic cameo) and the student leader he was, something like En is which we see from the plague on display in his room, but only more engaged and fervent in his ideologies and beliefs, which we will learn how they take its toil as the film unfolds.
The first salvo gets fired here in highlighting this 50s to early 60s era about the Chinese student protesters, and along the way throughout the narrative, this constant probing a section of our history that has been swept under the carpet, creeps slowly into the story in non-provocative fashion as En becomes incessantly obsessed with knowing more, as does little commentaries on the nuances of religion such as death-bed conversions, and the frowning upon the participation of customs and rites from a relative's beliefs. Perhaps this may spark some thought with the younger generation audiences to try and find out more, and for those from the era to begin opening up to talk about it when a budding interest in that era begins to grow.
But it's not all serious without some touches of comedy, which come in feather light doses at the right places, where the loudest guffaw comes courtesy of Wilson providing a chest-thumping presentation on National Day Parade preparations, which incidentally in real life, Boo Junfeng also had a contributing hand in this year's parade. I wonder whether he had encountered similar gaffes! The romance bit between En and Chinese neighbour Ying (Bobbi Chen) also provides some relief from the heavier themes, though their expected sexual awakening (hey, two hot blooded teenagers alone at home) provides the other fulcrum which gives the narrative another push forward.
Managing to coax convincing, natural performances that does away with exaggeration is one of the key major plus points in the film, where surprisingly the leads Joshua Tan and Bobbi Chen are making their film acting debuts, balanced with veterans such as Elena Chia and Samuel Chong. Language delivery for a local film tends to be cringeworthy, but Sandcastle successfully blended a mix of languages without coming across as forced or too artificially polished, especially when one speaks in one language, and a reply comes in the form of another; worked perfectly well here.
Production values are absolutely great, with nicely designed sets and art direction in place to make it all look like the 90s. I think we should begin to sit up and take note of Director of Photography Sharon Loh, as she conjures up beautiful images captured of metropolitan Singapore without resorting to having them all look like banal tourism ads. The song Home also gets a slower, more purposeful spin and beat, as do other Nationalistic songs that get performed by En's school choir. I felt Home's new sound rang home accurately on the exploration of the titular concept, and how the Tans have to live and love how they do.
I'll go as far to honestly say that Sandcastle is Singapore's answer to Japan's Tokyo Sonata by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It deals with familiar family issues that are central and familiar to a local audience, yet dealing with universal themes that can reach out to the bigger world out there. If you've found this year's commercial releases to be somewhat lacking in depth, then Sandcastle is that film to make you realize that we do have talented filmmakers in our midst with courage to tackle taboo issues in a manner that's non confrontational, yet set to make you think.
This year's best Singapore film, setting a high quality benchmark for others to follow.
Boo Junfeng was joined by cast members Elena Chia and Joshua Tan in a blog aloud session to talk about Sandcastle, and you can watch the entire proceedings here:
Part 1 of 5
Part 2 of 5
Part 3 of 5
Part 4 of 5
Part 5 of 5
Sandcastle opens on 26 August 2010, and unfortunately is only on a one-print run at GV Vivocity Cinema Europa, so you'll have to make your way down to Vivocity to catch this!