last week, i finally caught sandcastle, the full-feature debut by singaporean filmmaker boo junfeng. what i was particularly drawn to was boo’s attempt to negotiate the politics of individual and collective memory as lodged within the broader script of the nation’s history. this was explored rather thoughtfully through the perspective of en, the 18-year old protagonist who embarks on a personal journey to uncover the truth about his late father, who he discovers was a student leader in the chinese middle school protests in Singapore in the mid 1950s.
en’s frustrated pursuit of this “truth” is interlinked with singaporeans’ own disconnect with the pre-independence history of their nation. after en misses an early opportunity to hear from his grandfather, his efforts at finding out more from his family becomes increasingly difficult: his grandmother’s senility offers only glimpses of her own bitterness, while his mother’s refusal to engage with him only shows the extent to which she was determined to bury the past. it becomes evident that while the nation’s historical narrative is often plagued by generalities, social memory is similarly incomplete when a large remnant of individual accounts are impeded by either biological or psychological obstacles to remembering.
although boo stops short of directly critiquing the political apparatus which plays a crucial part in shaping the process of memory-making, he does daringly offer his own creative intervention by featuring two contrasting versions of “home”, one of the best-loved patriotic anthems sung during national day. the first, performed by a school choir, appears early on the film and is sung with gusto, each word articulated perfectly. when boo uses it in his film, you see his honesty in his love for home, but also a tinge of irony in accentuating the lyrics’ overt idealism.
boo’s bigger gamble, though, was his choice to end the film with a second version, interpreted by australia-based singaporean donald pan. here, the usually rousing song is slowed down and stripped of its emotional veneer. matching the contemplative pace and morose predisposition of the film, pan’s vocals issue the barest breaths of life into the sentimental lyrics, forcing himself to decide if he really means each word, each declaration of contentment and belonging. as a viewer and listener, you never really know if he means it, but i honestly can’t think of a more appropriate way to close a film that has so painstakingly fought to keep things open. – dan.
mp3: donald pan – home
follow the sandcastle film blog to check showtimes and reviews. this week, it will be screened at the toronto international film festival.