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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.

Cages bannerVisually, 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 façade of sleek, polished greyness.

In the film, Singapore’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 they’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 mind’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.

Cages stillThe same may be said for Iwamatsu’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 Iwamatsu’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 characters’ actions — whether it’s Tan’s dedication to the dying art of making cages for songbirds, Ali’s dedication (some might say overprotectiveness) of her son, or Jonah’s dedication to the man he doesn’t realise is his grandfather — carries the story through its meditative course, the film ultimately leaves some of the characters’ 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.

Watch the trailer here.

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


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  1. […] After 1½ years in Malaysia, 3½ years in Melbourne, 9 years in Singapore and countless film reels, Viji still embraces looking at different film materials everyday. Most recently, he has worked on some of the most well-known local films which have garnered international acclaim in film festivals locally and overseas. These include Eric Khoo’s Be With Me, Kelvin Tong’s 1942, Djinn’s Perth and Royston Tan’s 881. Speaking fondly of this year’s release Cages, Viji recalls the unique locations that allowed him to look at Singapore in a different light and the smorgasbord of colours he was given the chance to work with. […]

  2. ellery
    6 June 2007 at 6:33 pm

    boring film…yawnz…

  3. A
    21 March 2007 at 11:18 am

    The review is great! I find this film very interesting as I would appreciate a positive depiction of Singapore. I’m not a fan of this rating process however. In an attempt to rate this post four stars, as I clicked the first of four, the site took stopped the firlt click as a one star rating, which was not at all my intention…which was a bummer. Wondering how many others will do the same.

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