The Olive Depression – A Review by Mathias Ortmann7 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
The Olive Depression is every bit your satire template in the mold of that memorable Zo Gang ridicule of Singaporean films. Joshua Lim’s debut on the local silver screen this month will come as nothing short of a reaffirmation of your average detractor’s every prejudice and worst sentiments about local movies being too slow, too steady, too depressing. Yes, the title says it all.
But for those out there with a free mind and sober judgement (and a little patience) I’d say: catch it!
The Olive Depression (OD) traces the last days in the life of Johnny before he enters into National Service. The call into the army is a tough one for some and it isn’t meant to be a vacation in the first place. After all it is a mandatory service every able male adult in Singapore has to do for their country as a contribution to the formation of national identity. But this process, by its very nature, also affects one’s personal identity and is a set legal infringement on every citizen-soldier’s human rights. OD is a filmic contemplation of this issue as it follows Johnny’s struggle in resigning himself to the inevitable.
As the picture progresses and enlistment draws nearer day by day, we slowly place the main character into context: the nuclear family, his friends and Sarah, his girlfriend, who breaks up with him at some point. And from what we see, nothing is in any way spectacular or out of the ordinary about him, just a rather average, introverted and slightly idiosyncratic eighteen-year-old who finds it difficult to accept his imminent fate. But with time, roughly half an hour into the film, he becomes identifiable, distinct, and gradually his case begins to be more than a mere study of troubled youth, but a private trajectory of relinquishing or keeping, of self formation and angst.
The entire picture, as it is divided by the counting down of days, moves ahead like water in a tub after the plug’s been pulled, and on the surface Johnny spends his remaining time well enough as everyday. The drama is happening in the blanks, the spaces in between and the unsaid. Details and gestures matter as does the spoken word. What it amounts to is less than captivating but not without intensity. Be it seemingly random conversations, rehearsals for a church play, or visiting an arts exhibition — themes of acceptance, expectations or (non)conformity are always at the centre. Thus, an array of attitudes is voiced or put on display, if only as a dubious possibility to be quickly refuted; the living-room conversation he has with his father on voting for opposition is exemplary in a multitude of ways.
As you would rightfully assume, such matter makes for rather bleak entertainment — and dialogue. In fact, this is one of the strong points of OD in that it doesn’t attempt to be cool. Well educated youths who like to read Goethe (let alone quote in a letter to an ex-girlfriend!) can speak that bookish and in conversations with friends might address abstract problems that have profound personal implications. And the use of Singlish poses no obstacle to this, as you can see. I would argue that here is a display of realism bordering the naturalistic, even if it isn’t entirely natural. But so are we, some of us, possibly never again in our lives more serious than at precisely that age; and never more stubborn and self righteous, too. If you remember yourself, you will probably have to admit how Johnny, while being far from simple, is fairly representative, average as a certain type — and credible.
Strong character development is pitifully absent in too much of scriptwriting in Singapore, you’ve heard this line before. The Olive Depression for one can boast its lead as an achievement in the strong and conclusive contours he shows. By just so much as minor facial expressions he reveals internal processes and tribulations in their concealment, and thus Ooi Jian Yuan really delivers his part convincingly. However, this can not be said of all the cast, the parents in particular, who are both underdeveloped and a tad too stereotypical for my taste. More detail and, in the case of the father, a more committed performance would be desirable.
OD is dragging at times, is stilted and lacking in refinement in some scenes like the movie-going attempt, but it works on more than just one layer and has a quiet subtlety. The emotional tableau it features leans heavily to the sombre side of things, but this is an obvious choice of subject matter. When Sarah tells Johnny that she no longer wants to be with him, the scene turns out unintentionally comical but is wholly in keeping with the roles. In fact, those minimal flights of humour lead you to a not so usual appreciation of a film which works more like a detector scanning the surface of a mind under observation.
Stale and heavy-handed in the beginning, the intensity of illuminating the mind of its main protagonist eventually picks up; sufficiently so as to generate some form of anti-climax, and towards the end, in the barracks, you will find that somehow, almost inexplicably, you’ve actually come to an approximate understanding of another (fictional) human being. You learn to read Johnny’s nuanced exterior bearing and non-linear motivations, the struggle that defines his personality — without resolving anything about the contradictions labouring deep within him.
While not fully convincing, The Olive Depression has its strong moments, and they are handled with appropriate effects. When Trevor, Johnny’s best friend who is suffering through his first months in the army, heads back to camp after seeing Johnny off at the bus stop, the scene which up to that point had been statically built suddenly breaks free and is resolved into a frontal tracking shot. Such unexpected unwinding of composition is most powerful and perfectly timed and fitting. It really drives home an emotion and expresses it almost by means of involved observation: this is what film — and only film — can do. Another such instant comes near the end, in the oath taking scene. Here it is again, a sensibly calculated breakout of narrative focus, showing Johnny placed among the rank and file, that serves to accentuate an important transition and works both, visually and acoustically. Luckily, this is not the final frame, and without giving anything away, I have to say that I admire the film’s assured ending.
The Olive Depression is not a flawless movie. Don’t expect it to be perfect, or conveniently polished for ready consumption. It’s pacing is a challenge and it demonstrates how the form of any motion picture is much more complex than just the framing of a sequence of beautiful images. Even so, it is a good example of adequacy in creating a telling portrait of a teenager’s psyche on the brink of adulthood. And it is a study of citizenship on the terms of film, like we don’t have too many in Singapore filmmaking. Above all, it is thought-provoking and sincere.
It is one of those true indie gems that can still happen in Singapore today. Done on a self-financed budget, with no SFC grant whatsoever, it proves a case just like Nicholas Chee’s Becoming Royston did in 2007. Those films, I think, are well worth waiting for and, above all, worth your time and ticket-money. They provide an experience of sharing that you simply don’t have with some studio movie that hits your town like any other, indiscriminately. Here is a film that is home grown and, if you have the eyes and understanding for it, will become seminal to many local youngsters and wannabe filmmakers — for its honesty as much as its shortcomings.
The Olive Depression is a small scale film with wider implications. It is existential rather than minimal and its explosive force does not rely on pyrotechnics. At its World Premiere at Asian Hot Shots Berlin (AHSB) back in January 08, it was well received by the German audience, because it manages to address and present universal themes. It is also a political film. The ending it provides is open enough and presents the complete spectrum of human diffraction like inner exile and identity, the choices we must make. Joshua Lim’s directorial first is daring and charged on a subliminal level; it is not just another exercise in visual communication. For those who want their cinema to treat them to some reality under close observation and who don’t buy into beauty easily, this is a film you might think about for some time. It is a solid enough debut feature, and Joshua Lim has proven his mettle as a director to see this thing through and bring it to the silver screen, alive, no matter what. I’ll be curious to see where he goes from here. In short: I strongly recommend you watch The Olive Depression.