Thursday, December 11, 2003

SINGAPORE — They skip school, smuggle drugs and lash out with box cutters — hardly the teen image that strait-laced, orderly Singapore wants to show the world through its movies.

Indeed, even as “15” was winning praise at film festivals in Venice, Toronto and London, it was being suppressed by government censors at home, and only recently reached Singapore theaters — minus over 20 cuts adding up to several minutes.

“Pulp Fiction” it isn’t, but director Royston Tan says it’s faithful to life in the high-rise projects that house many of tiny Singapore’s 4.3 million people.

The authentic flavor is heightened by the cast — real street kids Mr. Tan knew from teaching drama at high school.

The fact that such a movie could be made and shown even with cuts is a sign of changing times.

Wealthy Singapore is trying to shed its image of ferocious public hygiene rules, bans on chewing gum and long hair and low tolerance for political dissent.

This passion for discipline has historically been driven by a desire to maintain order and harmony among its Chinese majority and Malay and Hindu minorities. But Singaporean elders have lately concluded that to attract foreign business and encourage creativity in the high-tech industry, it has to lighten up.

The government invested more than $28,000 in Mr. Tan’s $115,000 film and paid his way to the foreign film festivals as part of a campaign to put itself on the world cultural map and encourage its own artists to be more active and outspoken.

“Right now, the system is definitely opening up,” Mr. Tan, 27, acknowledged. “It’s a beginning, although my ultimate wish is that this film can be shown uncut.”

Even with cuts, it’s a grim chronicle of the violent, desperate and depraved everyday lives of five teenage boys.

One boy tears methodically into the flesh of his own forearm with a box cutter in a public bathroom, then slashes another kid’s face. A boy gags and vomits as he forces a butter-smeared condom filled with Ecstasy down his throat before smuggling it from neighboring Malaysia into Singapore.

Mr. Tan portrays life in Singapore’s cookie-cutter high-rises as a soul-destroying grind, where second- and third-generation immigrant families are locked in a vicious cycle of debt, violence and menial labor. About one-third of the film is about one boy’s search for the perfect building from which to leap to his death.

Like their parents, the boys of “15” speak Mandarin Chinese peppered with dialect slang and are ridiculed at school and in their own neighborhoods for being unable to speak proper English, the Singaporean lingua franca from British colonial times.

Consumed with defeated fury, they turn to gangs and drugs, or suicide.

The film is titled “15” because its main characters are that age and because it took just 15 days to film.

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