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The Torch: Reflections on 4:30 by Royston Tan

19 February 2008

The Torch: Reflections on 4:30 by Royston Tan

Early on, basically right after seeing 4:30 for the first time, I decided not to review this one. And so it stays, I’m not going to do it now. I would only fail my own standards. Because it is true that at times you get to a point where you have to acknowledge your limits, whatever your profession.

The TorchThen you will be forced for the sake of honesty to admit to yourself (and others if need be) that you cannot reach further than your own art will account for. Such is the case with me and “4:30″. So you can stop reading this edition of my column right here, and with good reason. For this time I have only my very personal experiencing this movie to share with whoever cares to listen and is willing to believe that, for once, it is only humility setting me to writing these lines.

By chance it was that I got to attend its world premiere, and had anybody told me in advance that I was going to be treated to a movie about a boy’s day-dreaming and night-watching, singing a song and at the end shedding tears into the camera, well, I wouldn’t have cared to watch — cynical me. Honestly, such ingredients would have seemed (and in their flatness stated afore they still do) nothing but trivial and moody to me; superficial sentimentality has never quite been my brand. Little did I know, how mistaken we can be about the very best in our convictions!

Because if anything, “4:30″ is pure perfection, it is mesmerizing, and all those seven wonders you can never fully address in words alone. So there is no need now, but keeping silent and this one good memory. But I can never rest with that, language is driving me, ceaselessly, and so if I must, then I’d borrow the words of a far greater man, my hero Don DeLillo, and call it “gradually shattering”. Yet maybe (hopefully) you’ve seen it as well and know how “4:30″ is an imagistic allegory of beauty and desolation told in exquisite angles, which brings the art of filmmaking in Singapore to a whole new level: the forefront of world cinema in the 21st century.

Well then, here I go again, speaking of (if not addressing) the world at large when in honesty the film experience I’m writing about is calling on intimacy and feelings and perceptions at a close range only. If this movie were a game, there wouldn’t be any get-out-of-prison card in it: you’re either in or out completely. (And even now I sometimes wonder, no, I am quite sure about that woman I overheard while travelling to the cinema by train, who promised her friend over the phone that she would leave the screening and join them should that movie she was going to see, “4:30″, turn out a failure; she didn’t join but stayed on till the end. Or later, while watching, the one in the seat right next to me who was stunned speechless, rapt away like me, and we exchanged a quick glance of amazed disbelief…)

Let me report from the inside, then. In the film, there are no clear temporal markers, it is never or always, as you like it, it is presently in the moment. Time matters though, time elapsing and reassembling in patches, into patterns and, finally, a movement. There is a current and it is almost circular, but more real than a loop, more intense: in the scene where Xiao Wu takes the clock off the wall and tapes it down to the auspicious hour, you will feel his pain. There is of course a tipping of the hat in the direction of “What Time Is It There?”, but this one motif variation in itself is pure genius to me.

Quite a bit of fuss has been made by some who claim the similarities between “4:30″ and Kim Ki-duk’s “3-Iron” are just too striking, but I don’t go with that. Besides the fact that Royston Tan wrote the story and conceived of the film prior to having seen that particular (masterful) movie in Korea back in 2005, then applying changes to the script before shooting, I am amazed how serious reviewers should be so lacking in oversight. They had better acknowledge the far more obvious (and by contrast fitting) common root these films share: that inescapable “Chungking Express” of 1994. It is easy to see and only fair (and certainly not belittling either of the two) to attribute a good portion of inspiration and credit to that one milestone in cinema history. After all, Wong Kar-Wai’s influence can hardly be overrated as such; moreover, it is essential and bespeaks any director’s versatility and indebtedness to their craft when making due reference as no-one creates out of a vacuum.

Enough — back to the essence! There are a few lines of speech in the film, but hardly dialogue. Simple sentences they are, impersonal standard procedure, reduced or pure as a composition, clear as water but incommunicado nonetheless. For in “4:30″ it is not people alone who are helpless in themselves, but language too; communication is (yes it is!) impossible but for a gesture on a staircase one night. So in the end “4:30″ had me numb with emotions, speechless and so liberatingly lost — I made my way home in tears. And that had never happened to me before with a film, has never since; and I wouldn’t have thought that it could.

There is probably only one excuse for writing all this deeply personal matter and for treating you to such length about it. Namely, the reassurance I hope it brings for our shared belief in the power and value of film. You will understand, I assume, how as someone professionally concerned with the craft, you can once in a while come to doubt the entire endeavour of energetically arguing the case of cinema. You really can tire of watching film after film of mostly very limited quality, occasionally wondering if it really is worth all your time? But “4:30″ obliterated all doubt with me; it hit home (and hard) saying that, yes, it can happen! Film can after all not only impress and affect you, but on rare occasion change your life. And that makes it all worth the effort, keeps you going, if not in expectation of something of like magnitude to come your way just so quickly (maybe never again); but to stay the course even so, in pursuit of quality on behalf of others to eventually see and understand for themselves all that which made you a believer in the cinematic real in the first place.

It is now two years since “4:30″ premiered at the 56th Berlinale on February 12th in 2006, and the spell for me still holds. I’ve never before or since been so wholly engrossed by a movie and a part of me continues to have a home within its super-real images. It just doesn’t fade. Some people state with a tinge of sadness not to be overheard, how Singapore seems to be a place for everybody else (rather than Singaporeans themselves — and they may have a point there). Again, cinema and the factual world can converge, and when they do, these pictures create a space to live in for everybody, virtually, wherever they reside. You might call it an illusion of course, but I don’t. To me it is more like a temporary truth. And that one can treasure, even for a lifetime, can you not?

No, I will not review this film, “4:30″, I don’t want to. But here is a confession I happily make: I love this movie!

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