Saturday, 24 June 2006


This boy stands for the Singaporean art film: Constipated, angsty, pretentious.

Like those books we buy but never get down to reading, those books that we buy anyway because we fear being caught dead without one on the bookshelf, so is Royston Tan’s entire oeuvre to the Singapore public. Tan has a reputation that precedes him, so much so that everyone I know claims to have watched at least one of his films – inevitably, the short film “15”, or if you’re meeting a smart aleck, the feature length “15”, or if you’re up against a misanthrope, one of Royston’s more obscure short films.

So there exists, wholly as an aside to the really existing Royston, the Royston of our common imagination and invention: he of the rebellious streak, thumping his nose at authority, conventionality, ministers and civil servants, the director with an MTV style, angrily spitting out tales of teenage angst, alienation, and anomie, sullenly archiving the state’s extinguishing of age-old buildings, professions, and places. Yet Tan’s second feature takes a sharp turn away from this image. The teenaged gangsters and rebels, the MTV style editing, the saturated colours – all these, as well as Tan’s characteristic rage, are missing from the film.

If you’ve never watched any of his films, 4:30 is not an ideal introduction to the work of Royston Tan, especially. This is a movie where nothing really happens, where the audience never really knows what happened even as the curtains are raised, or what the movie was about. This is a movie made for the festival film circuit, a movie that may require film professors and Roystonologists to decipher and explain.

A 13-year-old boy lives in a SERS flat with a Korean tenant. Leading separate lives in the same space, away from all effectual aid for whatever it is that haunts them, Xiao Wu and Jung perish every day, each alone. Everyone has their poisons: Xiao Wu gulps down bottles of cough syrup to induce sleep while Jung toys with more potent forms of suicide. Only during that magical time in the morning, at 4:30am do the pair experience what can charitably be described as “peace” or even “bonding”, where Xiao Wu crawls into Jung’s rented room, rearranges his belongings, sleeps in his bed, and leaves a glass of orange juice at his door.

In a movie that does away with plot and dialogue, there is nothing to witness, aside from pure acting, in the body language of the actors. Tan should be commended for creating a movie that should remind audiences of early childhood, a magical period of life where children have an unreal and illogical sense of time, conjure up imaginary friends, imagine they are invisible to adults, and recognise or mis-recognise themselves in others, and experience someone else’s physical pain and emotions as their own.

Yet loneliness, angst and boredom are hardly original material, and hardly sufficient material to sustain a feature film, and very painful to endure without any dialogue or plot. As a 30-minute short film, this might be considered a brilliant piece of art. At 90 minutes, this is a dreary exercise that will create adverse reactions in audiences unaccustomed to extreme art films.

Is this film made by the real Royston Tan? 4:30 feels like a film by Tsai Ming Liang, especially with the run-down, dingy apartment settings. The poster, as well as Jung’s suicide scenes might well be lifted from Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe. An intimate scene between Xiao Wu and Young Jun would have touched my heart had it not been a near copy of Eric Khoo’s Be With Me poster (the one that got pulled out following objections from the MDA), and Xiao Wu’s sneaking into Young Jun’s room to do redecoration-cum-spying is straight of out Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express.

Given this movie plays far longer than its material can support, what can you do in the cinema? There is a deliberate incoherence in 4:30, audiences will have fun picking out the inconsistencies in the plot, to perhaps arrive at a guess at what has really happened in the movie. They may also pass time by pointing out the fantastic array of 1970s-themed objects on the interior set, as well as how almost every scene is shot to deny the existence (or visual tyranny, if you prefer) a modern Singapore, and to spot the inconsistencies in the set design, and what it might mean. I suppose this is an old move Royston pulled from his earlier short film “177155”.

This is a type of film where inconsistencies do not drive the plot, and are perhaps irrelevant to what really happens in the movie. In a perverse way, we can see this as a bona fide Royston Tan film: whereupon, having rebelled against every form of temporal authority, the latest thing he rebels against is a good movie. Some people will be insulted to watch a long movie about such a trivial and banal subject that worse still, is given no deep treatment and development.

For the die-hard Royston Tan fans and true art film lovers, 4:30 is a much-watch. Audiences who expect to be entertained by movies are advised to stay clear of this, while those who expect another “15” should be disabused of the notion.

First published at incinemas on 20 June 2006

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's been ages, but this is the first time I'm seeing this review. I art directed the film in question. And I can't help but say, I can't agree more...