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The Torch: Invisible Children Review

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Invisible Children, Brian Gothong Tan’s first feature length film, just had its World Premiere at the Bangkok International Film Festival last month, and to review it is to tell you that it follows a well-known pattern: An Urban Escape Film as enacted by a pair of siblings, brother and sister, told in three interwoven episodes to complete the 21st century fallout of failed expectations.

ic1.jpgWe’ve come to take a certain level of production quality for granted in contemporary filmmaking in Singapore, and accordingly, Invisible Children is a lean but thoroughly accomplished motion picture without any major flaws or dramatic puddles of unfinished storytelling.

The three strains of its narrative – the children’s quarrelling with their overburdened and abusive mother and running away after hitting her in a fight; a soldier’s emotional confusion as his overworked fiancée repeatedly lets him down; and lastly, the spuriously romantic encounter between an obsessively neat government employee and a disillusioned flight attendant – these loosely connected lines are well-balanced and equal parts engaging and accessible.

It’s not that we haven’t seen this before somewhere, and most likely coming right out of Singapore, and so, Invisible Children feels like “Singapore Dreaming: Awake!”. It doesn’t really surprise with much refinement, drama or auteur-ish cinematic innovation, but rather, is a small-scale film that does not get consumed with overblown ambition.

ic2.jpgMaybe what makes this film halfway surprising is that it looks just so familiar, distinguished, measured and almost routinely crafted, bearing in mind that this is a directorial first after all. It has perfect little routes of escaping its own glossiness, which is good, as it serves to generate some much needed visual relief. If you watch closely, you will see that this movie features quite a bit of sloppiness in execution, in terms of lighting, framing and editing – nothing gross or deliberate, but noticeable nonetheless. All of this, however, doesn’t amount to style necessarily, but serves to lighten the picture considerably, thus saving it from being born down by its own weight and the severity of its theme.

This is where things begin to get interesting. Probably the first thing that you will notice when watching this film is its eerie calm and subdued nature, which stands in stark contrast to the subject matter. On the one hand the film exudes a near fatalistic air of disenchantment, which seems to suggest a certain tendency towards resignation over rebellion – quite Singaporean, indeed. On the other hand, as the film unfolds and you let yourself be taken by the hand and shown what it has to tell, you will find how every strain eventually finds an opening, if only in turning back. After all the violence and despair, could there not be a hint at reconciliation in the film’s final frame? Do note that there is nothing sweet nor apologetic about any of this – it does not serve any functional purpose like your all too predictable happy ending. It offers an option, nothing more; a gesture of kindness and mending like cinema can’t easily produce (so there is some refinement, at last).

Apart from that, the film looks decidedly Zhao Wei (perhaps a company secret?) – very “Be With Me” or contained in a Khoo cage, if you will. It is intensified realism, but the artistic surplus this is meant to generate does not always fully add up. If it wasn’t for the distinctly recognisable brand of humour as deployed by Brian Gothong Tan, the film’s surface alone would remain bland and render the viewing experience meticulously dull. The fact that it doesn’t can be attributed to those mean little tweaks to Singapore national representation – the cleverly spun deconstruction of its selling-point icons – something which the director, as a well-established and prolific artist, is known for.

ic3.jpgEven so, there is quite a lot to look at in the film, which is to say that the key filmic patterns and images that make up the film create a well-tempered flow. And in that relatively secure smoothness of cinematic presentation, we are to discover little gems of acute observation in moderately-paced succession. Take that virtual record of facial close-ups in Singapore film, for instance. At times one is left to wonder whether it was the director’s secret wish to fill in the perceived gaps that remained. And the cast, whose task it is to not just perform, but support the narratives and carry the film’s emotional tare, by and large deliver – with the sole exception of the Army storyline, which is makeshift and seems like a scaffolding to support some jabs at disciplinary maneuvering, and how it can backfire. Here, it is an officer’s struggle with his emotional self as he gets caught between frustration in his relationship and the urge to compensate for the lack of human connection – credible, but sketchy.

In terms of composition, this movie’s episodic structure, its joyful and enjoyable dismantling of some national legends and how it borders the caricature without being one-sided is tasteful and sharp – though more punch might have strengthened its impact. A very precise and self-assured score saves it from falling flat by adding a lot of emotional depth where it is otherwise missing in the pictures themselves, and rounding them whole.

Personally, I like the film, which is exactly what makes me a little suspicious. I know I have a natural tendency to like such films (lean and simple ones), but to be very clear, Invisible Children has its strengths and merits. The kids’ ordeal and their mother’s drama (equally correct, if put in reverse, by the way) are ugly real and well developed. The true golden shot however, is the scene of their turning invisible, a little filmic miracle like Jia Zhang Ke would perform, and one cannot help but feel grateful for it.

After watching the film, one peculiar question remains: Whom was it made for? Who is the addressed audience? Singaporeans? Really? I’m not so sure – to me, there is a sense that this feature has an outbound agenda in playing with representation as much as with representing Singapore. Invisible Children is intelligently scripted and has all the right ingredients, but it is not a great film. It is promising – just as it leaves you wishing for more: more details, more intensity, more risk-taking and more of a challenge in terms of its telling. But it’s still the early days, and Brian Gothong Tan (now well out of the starting block) should be one to watch out for in the future. And given the auspices of the production house he is under, there is little doubt that he will push the envelope more, and hopefully soon.

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