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Movie Reviews

12 Storeys (1997)  

Director: Eric Khoo
Cast: Koh Boon Poh (Ming), Lucilla Teoh (San San), Jack Neo (Ah Gu), Ah Gu's wife (Quan Yifeng), Lum May Yee (Trixie), Roderick Lim (Tee)
Singapore is not well known for its film industry, being more well-known as a nation well-known for being economically well-hung compared to its size, a diverse society with remarkably low levels of tension or problems on the surface. However, it is what occurs below the surface, that concerns this film, a caustic criticism of the state of the country's soul.

The film starts with a montage of slices from the lives of the ordinary people living in the grey government housing apartments, like flicking through pages before settling to focus on the life of a disaffected loner, who commits suicide at the beginning of the film. His wandering ghost provides the connecting arc between the three stories, a silent observer taking us into the intimate lives of these characters. The first focuses on Ming (Koh Boon Poh), who, at the cost of his own personal fulfilment, strove to live up to the traditional Chinese expectations of the eldest son of his family. With the parents away, he is in charge of his two younger siblings, Trixie (Lum May Yee ) and Tee (Roderick Lim). In the second story, overweight and lonely San San (Lucilla Teoh) contemplates suicide, her mother's torrent of abuse still ringing in her ears long after her death. And lastly, noodle-hawker Ah Gu (Jack Neo) is hen-pecked by his new mainland Chinese wife (Quan Yifeng), a shrill woman disappointed that her husband wasn't the rich businessman he said he was. Though not dealt with in much detail, even the ghost's own personal life is dealt with.

Eric Khoo expresses his social commentary through the characters in these three stories. Ming represents the anally retentive aspect of Singaporean authority, but also at a personal level, the frustration and despair stemming from a man dealing with his own ineffectuality. His two rebellious younger siblings, promiscuous Trixie and the surly Tee, represents the younger generation made bored from the comfort and security of their society, and chafing under the yolk of their overbearing older brother. San San's deep unhappiness stems from her mother's abuse, her upbringing representing the dark side of the much vaunted Asian values apparently credited with the success of the country. Ah Gu's wife, though having gold-digging tendencies, provides an outsider's viewpoint on the over-regulated environment of the society with acidic and belittling force. And throughout the whole film, several characters rattle off grim statistics afflicting this Asian utopia - suicide rates, teenage pregnancies, venereal diseases, etc. Khoo even includes the headliners of the day, something which might unfortunately date this film.

The Singapore depicted here on film is one filled with an extraordinary Babel-like cacophony of languages: not only the lexicon of Singlish (Singaporean English) but at least four Chinese dialects along with Malay and Tagalog share the screen. Gossip and business are conducted at coffee shops, as of old, and slices of the down-to-earth colorful streetlife contrasts strongly with the austere sterility that Singapore is unfortunately turning into. There is a feeling of loneliness, despair and alienation masked by the typical Asian poker face permeating the fabric of this film, from the suicide of the young man, the longing of a Fillipino maid for her distant child, to the regret and homesickness of Ah Gu's young bride. Though at times rather extreme, harsh and rough around the edges, the importance of this film is rightly deserved. And at the end of the film, the wandering ghost provides what comfort it can to a grieving San San, showing a small spark of hope and optimism for the future.

Eden Law

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