It's tricky. On one hand the filmmakers can claim this has no bearing on one of the most infamous supernatural stories of Pulau Tekong, an island where the Singapore Armed Forces recruits can spend up to four months in Basic Military Training, given that the film kept its promotional descriptions generic, but the references, and the inferences, from a gestation period of many years since writer-director Gilbert Chan had mooted "Charlie Company", cannot be more pronounced especially to those in country who have heard of it, and the film might just be able to wing it outside of our territory. After all this Gorylah Pictures and Clover Films production also gets co-produced by collaborators across the Causeway, and the Malaysian National Service camps were used for on-location shoots to double up for the old British styled ones in the 80s.
So if you put the Tekong references and inspiration aside, which could have been made quite an identifier to draw in local audiences despite being done a number of times for television, one cannot escape how a lot of liberties have been taken with regards to grounding it with a certain reality, especially when it comes to army protocols. I mean, if you want to set it against something, it has to be common-sensically watertight rather than to become such a big loophole an entire battalion of soldiers could march right through. One would think the writers of the film took the easy way out to allow convenience to happen in their stories, rather than to research properly into how an army functions.
For instance, guard duties that cover the exterior of the fenced camp compound and into the wild jungles, which played a key element in the haunting of this film, with recruits having the ability to come and go from the camp as they please, visiting a food outlet to beg one of the two human girls seen in the film (played by Stella Chung, for 2 scenes worth only) to provide them information. Or how in a road march involving recruits, there will always, always, be a front and a rear guide, usually made up of the platoon commander leading his troopers and the platoon sergeant at the rear rounding up the laggards. Here, while there is a commander who appears mostly to bark commands and ridicule the sergeant for his superstitious nature, he is largely absent for the exercise, relying on the sergeant, who's also being held responsible for the entire troop's performance as we would witness later on. The order of battle, and exercise regiment, is clearly disregarded.
Story-wise, 23:59 opens with what was seen in the trailers with the recruits huddled together to listen in to ghost stories as told by one of their peers, recounting the happenings of what had gone on in their predecessors' stint, as well as the haunting in the training island they are in. These were neither scary nor funny, as would in real life, but allowed an avenue to throw in things like an ouija board, and a nasty, evil looking medium. Flashbacks were used to death in the first third of the film which goes back in time to show and tell the gruesome deaths that had occurred, including how Jeremy (Henry Hii) has this estranged relationship with his conman dad who exploited his son and his supposed third eye (which can see spirits) into becoming a kid medium for money. Constant flashing back and forth brought in many peripheral characters, but serving little purpose to the plot, padding it up with unnecessary fat rather than substance.
Not only that, in what would serve as a mystery point where Tan (Tedd Chan), the recruit constantly bullied by his peers, goes missing, it happened in such a haphazard manner in the narrative, that brought out a lot of question marks. Question marks if addressed would make for a top notch psychological-mystery-thriller-horror but with what went through in 23:59, it became a gaping loophole. Tan couldn't have just disappeared when Jeremy, the fittest, big brother of a platoon mate was with him throughout his march, even offering and helping to carry Tan's field pack, in what would be ridiculed by the bully in the squad, Dragon (Lawrence Koh), in a way very pointed at the recent ruckus about maids helping this generation of soldiers. I suspect scenes in between that would have contributed to a proper buildup and suspense got edited out for reasons unexplained, which gave rise to a choppy rhythm with scenes spliced together carelessly, making it all seem inexplicable and illogical, even by horror film standards. Or if the intent was to deliberately create a gap that will be revisited in the big reveal, well, that didn't happen, leaving it all wide open.
Characterization was weak, relying on stereotypes that seemed to have borrowed a leaf from Michael Chiang's Army Daze, with an Ah Beng, Hokkien expletives spewing soldier in Dragon, the sissy or presumed sissy and "sabo-king" in Tan, the perfect recruit soldier in Jeremy, the fat kid Lim (Tommy Kua) who as formula dictates, is the joker of the group, and let's not forget Chester (Josh Lai) the silent type who turned out to be more than meets the eye. And the make up of this platoon couldn't be a greater departure in how the local army organizes its recruit training, ensuring a mix of races rather than, well, for film logistics reasons of having everyone speak the same language.
But if you were to deem story and technical elements not as important for a horror film, but the quality and quantity of scares, here's where 23:59 fell short too.
Director Gilbert Chan had cut his teeth so far in co-directing feature comedies, be it the dark one in S11 with Joshua Chiang, or Love Matters with Jack Neo. 23:59 serves as his first feature and the inexperience somehow shows in the inability to hold tension, create anticipation or build suspense. The by-the-book technique of jump scares may be cheap, but it takes skill to get it right in making the hearts of any audience skip a beat. Here the supposedly scary scenes were let down in part by two areas, one the sound effects or deliberate lack thereof since mood can be evoked by eerie silence (or tried to in this case), and the lack of proper, effective makeup - it's something if the ghoul on screen makes you cringe and shut your eyes, but another if you end up laughing since the first spirit you see, has a face that looked like a bloody venus fly trap.
It could have gone gory, or creepy, but it was neither. Throughout the film. Nor did it provide any psychological thrills. It's like watching people go around being afraid of their own shadow, or fear itself, while the most frequent trick in the book that was over-utilized, was that hand moving toward the shoulder shot. The quintessential elements of moving image and expert use of sound required to make a horror film tick, were all largely absent, and was akin to a premature ejaculation - where it's all anti-climatical midway even as you appreciate the filmmakers are trying their darnedest best to stroke things up for a big explosion that's just round the corner, only for their lack of skill and ability to hold it tense destroying their effort.
Were there some bright spots in the film? Yes, one. Mark Lee in what would be a more serious role with comedy not being at the intentional forefront, worked wonders as the platoon sergeant who had experienced inexplicable incidents under his watch and is adamant not to have to endure another which would mean no chance at promotion. His army lingo is spot on without feeling forced, and provided for some chuckles in what would otherwise be a bore given dead panned acting by cast of relative unknowns.
2359 was unfortunately incoherent as it tried way too hard to deviate from the rich Pulau Tekong supernatural mythos, where a collection of some of the best were seen in animated stills during its opening credits, and its lack of creativity to come up with something original, became something quite horrendous in both story and execution. It's half-baked and had enough material only for a less than 80 minute run time, making you groan at its ineffectiveness at every disastrous attempt to scare you. A walk in the actual Tekong jungles for those fortunate (like myself) to have done it before, would be more terrifying.