The Teenage Textbook
Directed by Phillip Lim
Produced by Jonathan Foo
Written by Phillip Lim, Haresh Sharma and Edmund Tan
Running time: 100 minutes
Released in 1998
In a nutshell
The lives and loves of students at a Singapore junior college — is it all sugar, spice and all things nice?
Isn’t it amazing, how 17 can be
Isn’t it so exciting, just like romance novels seem
Colourful pictures on the wall
Always waiting for the telephone call
A cry in the dark
A broken heart
A first time kiss
I’ve seen it all
A look back at nostalgia
Nostalgia. That’s my one-word review of The Teenage Textbook. It’s right up the alley for most of us who were born in the ’70s and went through school in the ’80s.
After all, this is a film based on the two seminal books written by Adrian Tan: The Teenage Textbook, and its sequel, The Teenage Workbook. Practically required reading in school in the 1980s, these books were part of an unwritten code of the initiated, in order to be in the crowd of the “with it” and the “hip”. It was cool to be seen carrying it around, sort of like the iPod of its time.
Or perhaps that’s just how I picture the past today, just as the film The Teenage Textbook is nostalgia about a past that no longer exists, or more accurately, that never existed in the form that Adrian Tan painted it.
The story, in the books and the film, revolves around the central story of a girl coming into junior college and the “complexity” of her love life. Of course, like all nostalgia, the complication is not entirely difficult to solve and not catastrophic.
And that’s what best describes the movie: clean. It resolves itself with a ribbon on top, even with the altogether clichéd but seldom used nowadays “and they lived happily ever after” — because that’s how it works in nostalgia.
Seeing the book from one side as a student, I used to think that the caricature was the reality. Watching the movie from the other side as an adult is like taking away the rose-tinted glasses and watching it as fiction. After all, the school system has changed since. And maybe, having left school now, I can see the reality behind the caricatures, that that school system never existed in the first place. Well-loved characters like E. Supramaniam MA East Anglia PHD Calcutta and Mr Ngo aren’t exactly like the caricatures that Adrian Tan painted in his book, but real administrators that can be a whole lot more multi-faceted and perhaps even a little sinister.
Nevertheless, what fiction this is. The movie, like the book, cracked me up in a way that I never thought a Singaporean film could. The jokes are fast and furious (pardon the cliché) with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos by various personalities and Easter eggs that would challenge the ageing eyes of the original fans of the book. The script was very well-written and although some parts were a little off in execution, it was an amazing adaptation of the book.
I did, in the watching of the film, find myself considering the following: Adrian Tan’s book is a reflection (and nostalgic trip) about his past. Phillip Lim’s recreation of the book is a nostalgia about that 1987 past. So watching the film again in 2006 is an opportunity to take a nostalgic look at 1998 being nostalgic about 1987.
On the one hand, it’s all familiar to me. We’re all had experiences that bind us to the film or book in one way or another — we’ve all been there. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that the experiences, like the memories, are familiar simply because my mind’s censored it a whole lot and with some sanding and polishing, has created a nicer, neater, more general memory for me.
This is similar, in a sense, to both the books and the movie. It’s memory that’s been cleaned up and generalised because that’s nostalgia for you. The scars have all stopped hurting. The pains and heartaches, washed away. And the whole package, wrapped up nicely and stowed away safely in our consciousness.
All with a ribbon on top.
- Sinema’s interview with Phillip Lim (part 1 & part 2)
- Review of The Teenage Textbook (The Flying Inkpot)
- Interview with Adrian Tan, author of the Teenage Textbook (The Flying Inkpot)