Thursday, 1 March 2007

Kallang Wave, The (2007)

Ole, ole, ole!

As the filmmakers of the Kallang Wave (fans of Singapore soccer themselves) point out, the local game has been in decline and free fall since 1995, when the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) withdrew the country withdrew from the Malaysia Cup and set up the S League. Match attendance has declined, falling in tandem with news coverage of local matches, and some say the quality of the local league. Kallang stadium and its brethren, once the carnivalesque home of passionate fans, have fallen silent despite the intensive nurturing of local football talent that the S-League and the Sports School represent. With football fanatics more likely to don the colours of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid instead of Balestier Khalsa FC, watch ESPN's international broadcasts of soccer matches instead of S-League match highlights on local television, Singapore football is as good as finished, aside from the occasional Tiger Cup finals match at the stadium.

And so in the coming decades, if anyone asks "Who killed Singapore soccer? Enquiring minds want to know!" they might want to skip the National Archives, hundreds of thousands of back issues of the Straits Times and The New Paper, and go straight for The Kallang Wave, a documentary that investigates the reasons for the decline of local football, in a series of interviews with football fans, local football players past and present, reporters from the newspapers, and the immense S-League officialdom. The better part of the bargain, should you choose to purchase tickets for this movie, are the footage of past Malaysia Cup finals. With the loss of most of the old broadcast archives in the Caldecott Hill fire, The Kallang Wave is the easiest avenue to relive past glories and view the image of stadium-sized Singaporean crowds celebrating and cheering their team on.

The almost forensic approach to the team's investigations generate many long talking-heads segments which thankfully alternate with the more gut-pleasing footage from the National Stadium. Each group of stakeholders are singled-out, a la Who Killed the Electric Car? as prime suspects of the demise of local soccer: lack of fans, lower standards of the local league, a media uninterested in playing up interest in the local league, and even the EPL is fingered as well.

The filmmakers are silent on where they personally stand, but it is difficult to ignore the fact that underlying the mutual fingerpointing is a mistaken sense of "entitlement" each group feels: Why should fans feel entitled to have a premier league with star players? Why should the S-League officials feel the press should, as a matter of patriotism, cover their games automatically? And why should the press feel that it is merely their duty to report what the masses are genuinely interested in, but expect the S-League to generate its heroes, hype, and excitement on its own? Perhaps this documentary missed a chance to truly examine the "problem" of the decline of local soccer, and doesn't take long before all 3 groups start blaming Singaporean society and culture. Cue the list of alternate suspects that the groups can agree is killing enthusiasm for the sport: fast paced society, kiasuism, paper qualifications, overpressured schoolchildren - and the movie slips into Singapore Movie Territory, where filmmakers cannot take Jack Neo out of their hearts even when they make their own films. Of course, this may actually make the movie more accessible to the common moviegoer, who might not be that great a soccer fan, but remains a true blue Singaporean heartlander.

Thankfully, the love and conviction for the sport is all but evident in the faces of all the interviewees despite their mutual fingerpointing and very Singaporean complaints, in the narration of the filmmakers despite their sometimes high-flown language and mythmaking language. As a record of the passions of local soccer and simpler times, The Kallang Wave is an excellent movie that every Singaporean - soccer fan or not - should watch.

As a good old-fashioned investigative documentary though, the movie's record is mixed: audiences may leave wondering why the murder mystery never even makes a case against the butler. Missing a chance to examine the institution itself, the filmmakers free S-League's management, coaches, and players from questions about its organisation, recruitment policies, and justification for existence. It becomes impossible to imagine the S-League is responsible for the eclipse of local football, if one equates the S-League is local football. Deserving every bit of our respect, football legend Fandi Ahmad is the only official who manages to pinpoint the flaw of the entire system, and puts it blunting. Otherwise, the documentary is missing all mention of the promotion and abandonment of Goal 2010, the initial explanations by then-Prime Minister Goh that the league would create community and regional identity and bonding, or even the simple fact that Singaporeans have had to put in longer and longer hours of overtime work since 1994.

Audiences will derive more satisfaction from The Kallang Wave if they watch it not as a documentary like Who Killed the Electric Car?, but as a non-fiction movie that captures neatly the mood of football mania from previous decades, like Glastonbury. This movie, despite its rough spots, is a sincere and well-meaning celebration of the love for soccer.

First published at incinemas on 25 March 2007

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