3 stars out of 5
Boo Junfeng, the bright rising star of the current generation of local filmmakers and still only 27, is fast becoming the new face of Singapore cinema.
In the last few years, while former posterboy Royston Tan has stepped back from the limelight, Boo’s name has frequently been bandied about, what with his award-winning shorts (he released three during a fruitful 2008) and the development of this film, an International Critics’ Week selection at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Sandcastle is Boo’s first solo feature, after his participation in the 2007 multi-director experimental piece Lucky 7. Anyone familiar with the director’s work will see his trademarks and elements of past works in this sensitive coming-of-age tale.
Like his main character in the short Keluar Baris, the protagonist in Sandcastle, En (newcomer Joshua Tan), is a boy on his way to being a young man – Boo again uses the age of national service enlistment as the demarcation between the two stages of life.
The film examines family dynamics, between a boy and his mother, as was explored in Katong Fugue. And then there’s the seaside setting, a theme recurrent from Bedok Jetty and Tanjong Rhu, for one of En’s enduring memories, one pivotal to his journey of self-discovery and search for identity.
Sandcastle takes place as the 1990s make way for the 2000s. Change is in the air, and En, awaiting enlistment, goes to live with his grandparents while his mother is away. His grandfather recounts his father’s involvement in student protests and communist activities in the 1960s.
En becomes intrigued by this and asks his mother tough questions about his father. There is tension in the household, for the relationship between En and his mother (well played by Elena Chia) has been increasingly strained by a foreign presence – his mother’s stiff army regular boyfriend (Samuel Chong).
There is a sense that words have been left unspoken, secrets kept and feelings hurt. Adding to the undercurrent of despair is the growing debilitation of En’s grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
Boo’s film has its moments, mostly involving the mother and son, whose exchanges peel away at years of growing estrangement. For the most part, the performances are natural and understated enough.
But there are structural issues that plague the film, including the ‘false-ending syndrome’ that seems to indicate uncertainty in resolving the story in the third act. Pacing is an issue and, at some points, the performers seem to speak in a robotic monotone.
En’s romantic entanglement with a pretty China girl (Bobbi Chen) whose bedroom faces his in an adjacent block is one of a few elements that seem a little out of place.
For 92 minutes, the film feels long and is only sporadically engaging. But there are good ideas here – like when a national song is sung just at the right, cheeky moment – even if they aren’t quite pulled together well enough.
Being forced to be the man of the house, because of his absent father and ailing grandparents, En is a boy saddled with a heavy burden while trying to lead a normal adolescent’s life.
Boo parallels En’s fear of losing connections to his past, of forgetting too quickly and thus losing one’s own identity, to the collective memory loss and disenchantment our generation faces as we seem to have our eyes firmly planted on the present and future.
For a first feature, this is a commendable effort. Unfortunately, Tan lacks the dramatic range for what was a demanding role, and the script probably needed to be tighter, the pacing and editing more refined. The film seems to amble along without really building up to an emotional climax.
Still, it is a heartfelt effort highlighted by Chia’s sombre turn and replete with familiar homegrown concepts and themes. One hopes that it lays the foundation for greater works to come from Boo.
About Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.