In a nutshell
Single mother Ali is forced to seek shelter for herself and her blind son Jonah with her estranged father Tan, who abandoned her as a child. Jonah and Tan begin to forge a new relationship, but the unresolved issues of the past are not so easily pushed aside.
Visually, Cages is a triumph. It is Singapore, as a Singaporean would never ordinarily see it. Anyone familiar with the country can tell that the production team must have gone through great pains to make it look as different as possible from the public modern faÃ§ade of sleek, polished greyness.
In the film, Singaporeâ€™s landscape is gorgeously warm and vivid, punctuated with quaint and evocative touches from a forgotten past. From the ancient rickety buses and run-down bus-stops, to the shophouse dripping with colour and light and old-world charm, right down to the little telephone booth with its curved frosted glass and orange words (I thought theyâ€™d all disappeared by the mid-1980s) appearing briefly in the corner of a shot — the attention to detail is incredible.
One wonders if this is how Jonah (played by Dickson Tan), who seems so acutely attuned to the sounds and movements of his environment, sees the world in his mindâ€™s eye. The rich colour and character of the shophouse also emphasises the isolated and anachronistic existence led by Tan (played by the late Makoto Iwamatsu) in the company of songbirds, and is a perfect foil for the eccentric Liz (played by Zelda Rubinstein) who manages the shop.As eight-year-old Jonah, Dickson Tan is remarkably convincing. He often looks slightly sullen and not very appealing, but when he breaks into a toothy smile, as he does for the first time when he poses for a photograph with Tan, his face has a way of lighting up, and he is believable and incredibly fetching in his awkward, halting way.
The same may be said for Iwamatsuâ€™s performance as Tan, but in this case, the expression of his emotions seems to be hamstrung by his accent. One finds it harder to feel for Tan because of Iwamatsuâ€™s Japanese-American accent, which jars especially with the distinctively Singaporean lilt that comes naturally to Dickson Tan and Tan Kheng Hua (who plays Ali). Nevertheless, the relationship between the characters Tan and Jonah is developed with skill and nuance.
On the other hand, while Tan Kheng Hua is a more than competent actress, her character Ali is insufficiently fleshed out. There is no denying the emotional intensity she brings to the role, but our inability to understand why Ali acts the way she does significantly diminishes the emotional impact of the film.
Which is sort of a pity because Cages is unabashedly a melodrama at heart, with ample potential for exploring the complex human relationship that undergird any family story. While the quiet dedication behind each of the three main charactersâ€™ actions — whether itâ€™s Tanâ€™s dedication to the dying art of making cages for songbirds, Aliâ€™s dedication (some might say overprotectiveness) of her son, or Jonahâ€™s dedication to the man he doesnâ€™t realise is his grandfather — carries the story through its meditative course, the film ultimately leaves some of the charactersâ€™ behaviour unexplained — and hence a little perplexing even after the credits have rolled.
Cages opens nationwide in Singapore on 22 March 2007. Get your tickets now from Golden Village.
Written and directed by Graham Streeter
Produced by Joshua Wong, Frank Cody, Tania Sng & Hari Chembukave
Running time: 90 minutes
To be released 22 March 2007