While accolades are going Anthony Chen's and Ilo Ilo's way, there's another award winning film that's just been released and screening at The Arts House under its Frame X Frame banner. Producer-Director-Writer Wong Chen-hsi received Best Director at the Asian New Talent Award at last year's Shanghai International Film Festival, and like Ilo Ilo, the film finally found its way home from the overseas festival circuit, for local audiences to savour and celebrate its acclaimed success with our homegrown talent.
But unlike Ilo Ilo's context and story, which is by far the more accessible and powerful one, Innocents turned out to be a rather abstract affair, dealing with loneliness and the ostracizing of children who by chance, found their way to each other's company despite early animosity and difference, to fiercely forge a firm friendship between them cemented by a secret shared, which like all good things, rarely last. But therein lies the issue with Innocents because it didn't really allow for a genuine audience connection with the children involved, accompanying them in their growing pains, and this made it easy to turn off especially when scenes seemed to be over-indulging in its capture of beautiful green scenery, and other carefully composed shots.
The opening shot with its widescreen aspect ratio presentation throughout, is set to wow with its first impressions, and the technical details were nothing less than top notch. Images were engineered to be postcard picturesque especially when it had to do with the wide outdoors of natural forest and foliage, cut through by railway track (now defunct) and concrete monsoon drain, all of which serve as the truancy playground for the primary schoolchildren of Syafiqah (Nameera Ashley) and Huat (Cai Chengyue). Which seemed to go on almost forever for half the film, while at the same time peppering the narrative with suggestions of their troubled backgrounds. Their new found landscapes, hidden from the adult world that didn't seem to understand them, provide temporal relief and an avenue where they can just be kids, playing with water, catching fish, and hiking, but somehow the narrative started to languish, until the midpoint of a discovery that teased, but frankly didn't get developed.
It was a little bit peculiar that the context, time and places can't be deliberately pin-pointed in the film. It can only be assumed it's set in Singapore (although frankly it could be anywhere in and around Malaysia for a shot of a KTM map) - the only giveaway was the old currency used - with its kampung house complete with leaky rooftops, contrasted with high rise HDB flats. But other issues like the way buses operate, threw this assumption off track from time to time. And to work around its budget, an excellent sound design by Vincent Tang compensated for the visuals, or lack thereof, for instance, cueing us that it's a full fledged, busy school, when what can be mustered for the screen showed otherwise. Cinematographer Joseph White also had a hand in making the film look gorgeous for the most parts, but once you're past all the technical brilliance, you're left on your own to seek out that soul which was conspicuously absent.
For a while, the story felt like My Neighbour Totoro done live-action style in some parts, with the kids going off playing in a little wonderworld of greenery, oblivious to time and space, and even had to depend on a private bus as transportation to and from locations. But it is not all fun and games as the story starkly contrasted some unreal situations, at least when seen today, where teachers can no longer be tyrants and hold the final word in class. It's yet another clue this may have been set in yesteryear, as any educator can attest to the losing of jobs should anyone raise hell the way the teacher did as portrayed in this film. And the story wastes no time in demonizing most of the adults save for one science teacher, while most of the male students got shoe-boxed as bullies who make life difficult for Huat.
One hardly gets a Malay girl in a local film as a leading protagonist (the last film that did that was perhaps Marc X Grigoroff's Salawati back in 2008), and here, Nameera Ashley provides a doe-eyed, smart lass portrayal in her Syafiqah, undoubtedly the dutiful good student who knows her stuff, and doesn't stand for any nonsense from anyone. And Cai Chengyue plays her opposite number as the unkempt boy who persistently comes to class late, which makes his teacher constantly tear her hair out, and exasperated by his couldn't-care-less attitude. One's a newly transfered student, while the other is the resident troubled boy, and it's no sooner that both find some common ground and connection to each other.
However, it is their scenes together where they say nothing at all, except to let their actions do the talking, that worked. Otherwise what made this movie seem a little bit artificial, is the quality of the dialogues, which contain too much polish that you would not expect to have come out from children. Not to diss them as incapable of doing so, but the sentences that came out of both children, seemed to be nothing more than elaborate mouthpieces for the storyteller, with the kids seemingly spouting lines that were comfortable for a stage play, but being really out of place and awkward for something on film. The intent may be to show that the kids were more mature in their thinking and actions when it came to the big picture, while the adults were petty and unreasonable, but it's a pity that this didn't get naturally coaxed out from the performers, making scenes look too engineered, rote, and lifeless.
Innocents may be a visual feast, but it isn't something that's already not seen before in a local film, with similar prominent landscapes already covered in quite detail through an early film in Liao Jiekai's Red Dragonflies. Narratively it didn't manage to cement emotional depths for connection with its leading characters, and the story sort of gave way toward its final third when left to the devices of a solo character to lead the charge. If it was more direct and bold with its intent, rather than to leave it as an open end, then perhaps it would have provided the film with that edge it sorely needed. Still, it's an A for technical effort, if only it had a story with a stronger emotional core to back it up. Singapore's top supporting actor Lim Poh Huat is in the film as well, though you don't get too see or recognize him much in the movie until the end credits roll.