Multimedia visual artist Brian Gothong Tan's first narrative feature length film, Invisible Children made its world premiere in Bangkok way back in 2008, and in Singapore I had missed its premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival, then again during its limited run at Sinema and on television. I've got the SG Films @ Library programme to thank for in having this featured in its lineup, since subsequent screenings to an audience is touch and go, and like most locally made indie films, DVDs will be hard to come by. Tan is no stranger of course to cinephiles here, having lensed Thai director Ekachai Uekrongtham's film Pleasure Factory, set in the seedier, red light district of squeaky clean Singapore.
In the fold of Zhao Wei Films, it is never a stretch to imagine that Tan's maiden feature would be set in, and exploring the darker undercurrents of Singapore society. As he admitted Invisible Children was inspired by Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys, and could probably be imagined as a quasi-sequel of sorts to Khoo's work, with a myriad of interconnected characters peppering three main narrative threads. Like his peers, this new exciting generation of filmmakers such as Ho Tzu-Nyen and Boo Junfeng don't shy away from the inclusion of socio-political commentary in their works, as seen from their films HERE and Sandcastle respectively.
From the get go, we see a montage of shots showcasing Singapore's public housing, and the hint of dirty linen post washing and displayed for the public eye, and a slew of signages and campaigns that Singapore is known for, reminding one of the laws of the land that made this a fine city. Strangely enough, and I can almost guarantee that these posters were meticulously sourced for to be featured, where the words highlighting proud achievements would only be betrayed by the less than positive expressions from the faces being featured on them. The stage has been set, that we are rigid, by-the-book conformists.
The stories in the film boast a level of maturity in striking that balance between art house sensibilities, the messages it wanted to put across, and at the same time, there to entertain an audience without being too verbose about its intent. The different stories present the varying approaches people in our society generally take under an authoritative figure, and broadly in three categories, do we swallow our pride and dutifully follow instructions without question, or do we conform yet being snide and sarcastic since that's all we can and are resigned to do, or do we snap and rebel? And the autocratic style is prevalent throughout, such as the army officer meting out corporal punishment that gets exponentially increased on a whim, the teacher taking a biased side and marching a schoolgirl to the principal's, the way an environment officer insists and barges into a private apartment, and the unforgiving manner a boss tells off his staff on a repeated mistake.
Tan juggles all the characters here with ease through the various threads, one dealing with schoolchildren (Kimberly Chia and Kyle Chan) who run from their abusive mom (Karen Tan) after a violent tussle, a timid and shy man (Lim Poh Huat) with what I thought was mild OCD and his budding romantic relationship with an SPG air stewardess (Isabella Chiam) from Merlion Air whom he rescues from a drug induced near suicide, and what would seem like a combo thread involving an army officer (Chee Chuan Yang) and his ill-disciplined soldier (Leon Lim), and the former's fiance (Cindy Teo) and her demanding boss (Jonathan Lim). I liked this thread best, as it shows how the workplace sounds a death knell in a modern couple's relationship in Singapore, especially with work that never seem to end with a slave-driver at the heml, and the boss-staff relationship that had karmic consequences - with the officer confining his soldier for the weekend, the boss too keeps the officer's girlfriend from what could possibly be a romantic evening out.
The power of suggestion is keenly felt throughout the film, especially when authority gets challenged (this is Singapore circa 2008 after all), or when there's a whiff of what could be homoerotic undertones, where one gets enticed by the carefreeness that some can live their lives, over the very structured with rigidity that one had chose and finding it hard to break free from. And you wonder how the different threads mirror the stages in life we go through in Singapore, where being young meant a sense of fearlessness in challenging the status quo, and before you know it, we become somewhat subservient with the kinds of checks, schemes and policies put in place, and dare not risk rocking the boat in order to ensure that rice bowl is kept intact.
Technically this film doesn't betray the fact that the director is a first-time feature film director, though he does come with a pedigree of experience from various artistic installations and short films under his belt. His visual style rings through in certain scenes, especially those involving the great outdoors, and I suppose having a good cinematographer (Sharon Loh, who also lensed Sandcastle) helps loads. For those in the know, there are plenty of film and art community personalities that got roped in for various supporting roles here, with the likes of Alfian Sa'at, Tan Bee Thiam, Jeremy Sing, Jonathan Lim, Audi Khalid, and of course, the "extra-ordinaire" Lim Poh Huat himself.
I wasn't expecting much from the film, but went away throughly impressed and convinced that Invisible Children ranks amongst one of the best local films of the last decade. It has a degree of sass to make its own statements heard and felt, maintained accessibility despite its artistic inclinations, blessed with that levelheaded wisdom that many will want to emulate. Highly recommended, and if you have a chance to watch this, you better do!
Director Brian Gothong Tan was in attendance to conduct a Q&A session with the audience, moderated by Singapore Film Society's David Lee. Brian does get very candid, and shares plenty of behind the scenes production issues. You can view the entire Q&A session in the clips that follow:
Part 1 of 2
Part 2 of 2
From Jan – March 2011, library@esplanade, in partnership with the Singapore Film Society, will be hosting a showcase of local films – SG Films@library. The screenings will take place every 2nd and 4th Friday evening of the month.
Admission is FREE!
To find out more, check out this Facebook Page.