The New Malcolm
For 25 years, Michael Chiang's theatre play Army Daze was the poster boy that encompasses all things funny and memorable about the Singapore male citizen's rite of passage through National Service, that compulsory draft that see 18 year olds spend some 2 of the best years (from 2.5 years) of their lives in protecting the nation . And that spawned a graphic novel penned and illustrated by Chiang himself, as well as a film directed by Ong Keng Sen in 1996 that remained one of the highest grossing English language Singapore films. Now it seems that Jack Neo is adamant in crafting the quasi-update to Chiang's story, with more of the usual elements, characters, caricatures and jokes to celebrate the Singapore Armed Forces 45th anniversary through his two-parter movie Ah Boys to Men, which the title itself suggested a play on Army Daze's movie tagline From Real Blur to Real Men.
And Jack does it quite right, providing the all round entertainment for the masses that only Jack can for local audiences. I'm pretty sure some would still be distracted by the dalliances of the man, but honestly, put that aside, and judge this movie for what it is - mass entertainment that's funny as how I remembered my own Basic Military Training drill sergeant shout out classical gems of wisdom, though laced with a lot more vulgarities. You can find the usual director's faults, what with the product placements and all, although this time this got toned down to a certain degree and had tried to work its best into the plot, save for a strange accounting firm moment that appeared out of nowhere and was the most jarring of the lot. Roasted meat, coffee and mobile phone services all worked fine
Part 1 is almost documentary like, that charts the first few weeks of BMT where training is supposedly the most siong (tiring), where one gets to switch to a soldiering mindset, and learn the basics. It takes some getting used to of course, and herein lies plenty of opportunity for comedy, which Jack milks to perfection. Naturally, one cannot avoid comparing this effort to Army Daze, which is also centered around the same three months of initiation, with caricatures that you find in almost every army platoon, such as the ubiquitous Singapore Ah Beng, the drama kings (or queens!), the Siao On, the Mommy's Boy, and who can ever leave out the Chao Keng (idle), who would do his utmost not for his buddies or for the good for the platoon or company, but based on selfish reasons try his best to fall out from the training programme, praying for seemingly easier vocations such as the cook, clerk, driver or storeman.
Unlike Chiang's story that sees the journey of recruits primarily through the eyes of a mommy's boy Malcolm Png, who's more of a goody-two-shoes, Ah Boys to Men adopts the zero-to-hero formula, and has its protagonist as the unflattering Chao Keng, aptly named by switching the title around into Ken Chow (Joshua Tan). A spoilt brat who has just broken off from his girlfriend Amy (blogger Qiu Qiu in a bit role) but still trying his best to woo her back (seriously?). His background story is rooted on his mom (Irene Ang) trying to work her ways from doctors to Members of Parliament to get him deferred, or better yet, excused from two years of training, and further encouraged by his uncle (Wang Lei) to learn the ways of the idler. This goes contrary to the wishes of his dad (Richard Low) who encourages him to do his utmost to get into Officer Cadet School and pass out an officer of the armed forces. This bickering within family members is nothing new as a story telling device that Jack has almost always worked into from the earliest of his films, that on one hand criticizes and makes fun of the establishment, yet on the other reining itself like a General Paper argument.
And assembling Army Daze 2 is the set up of Ken Chow's platoon / section under Ninja Company in the Basic Military Training Camp in Pulau Tekong, which is very unlike the Pulau Tekong Camp that I have, and many others had, gone through our respective training, with the essential inclusion of scenes like the swearing of the oath, the bidding of farewell to family members, the kitting up, introduction to fellow mates and commanders, as well as one off events such as the issuance of one's primary weapon. To tell the many stories from the days of old and the beginning of the formation of the Army, where the earliest NS generation probably had it really bad, flashbacks got employed to recreate those urban legends of nightmarish stand by beds resulting in the carrying of furniture to the parade square, and drill sergeants who were truly terrifying and deaf. And camouflaging and CB Leaf, something that is quintessential of field camps, has survived generations, all encapsulated and fondly captured into the narrative of this installment.
Given a relatively fresh faced cast to take on the role of soldiers, I think Ah Boys to Men scored a coup here, in bringing out the best from its acting talent. Standing out would be Joshua Tan in the lead role, whose charisma on screen entices you to sympathize with his struggles of wanting to quit National Service, with the teaser for the next film that presents a totally different facet of the character. Wang Weiliang's Lobang is definitely going to be the crowd favourite, given some of the best lines in the film and being quite natural with his delivery - his character's introduction (the first time when he speaks), will have you laughing in tears. Then there's what I thought was a nod toward Army Daze's Malcolm Png (at least in the looks department) in having Maxi Lim star as Aloysious, the suck up in every platoon who thinks he's the best of the best, and Tosh Zhang (who also wrote and performed the theme song Recruit's Anthem) being the platoon sergeant everyone loves to hate, barking out orders with gusto, and likely to remind any army boy past and present of their own.
Given that this film had the backing of the Ministry of Defence, what better way to film this than to take the opportunity to play with the necessary toys, that have not made an appearance in local cinema? For the first twenty minutes, Jack plays his ace up his sleeve and showed hand with what would be something that hasn't been seen on Singapore's screens about Singapore, and that is its utter destruction in a fictional war scenario. The adversary is unknown of course, not wanting to offend anyone in our geography, and having an impossibly three turbine engined wave of enemy warplanes unleash a bombing fury on our island. The battle in the sky continues into the battle on the ground, where loads of CG (going by the credits, done by students and professional outfits) were used, with graphic scenes on the casualties of war. For a local film, this is probably as best as can be for now, and it wouldn't be just to compare quality here with that of multi-million dollar Hollywood productions that have a lot more resources and experience. However, It could have been grittier though, but bearing in mind this film probably needed its PG rating rather than something higher, having to recoup its investment in what would be one of the costliest films yet in Singapore.
Ah Boys to Men works because many people from all walks of life will remember things from it, whether it has something to do with BMT, the people that you meet, or even topical and social issues involving domestic workers that our current generation seem so reliant upon. It'll also give old soldiers like myself a glimpse into how times have changed, facilities upgraded, and how a lot more welfare is being put into the treatment of soldiers these days, much unlike the earlier generations, although the experience coming out of BMT/NS, will likely be common.
What made this a winner though, isn't the big budget involved to raise production values, or the military hardware on display. It's a small, but tremendously heartwarming and impactful scene that demonstrated how the family rallies around the NS boy who returns home for the weekend, for much needed and inevitable rest. That flashback scene, I'm very sure, is still valid today, and certainly identifiable by everyone who had gone through it. And that's probably the true meaning behind "for country, for family", because it is not just one person's that mobilized, but everyone else in supporting their loved one through this rite.
I can't wait for the second installment already. Watch this!