FILM REVIEW: Beijing, Mumbai, Tampines
After a gruelling day of training, a group of quarrelsome National Service recruits call their mothers from their phones. Despite their different origins, their conversations with home are poignantly similar. B.M.T. aims to show that despite surface tensions between ordinary Singaporeans and new citizens, they share the same humanity deep down.
Director: Kelvin Tong
Cast: Nicholas Teo, Jai Kishan, Shi Lin Fan
Language: English, Chinese, Malay
Runtime: 10 min
Review by Leon Lau
This is the National Service I recognise. Not the fun-filled joyous laughter of wacky platoon mates from films like Ah Boys To Men (2012), but the casually racist and toxic environment of young men who took their frustrations out on each other. Films about NS have focused on comedy in the past, but there is little to laugh at in Kelvin Tong’s curiously titled Beijing, Mumbai, Tampines (2017).
This might just be the first Singaporean film I’ve seen that accurately depicts racism and xenophobia in the army. Unlike most of its counterparts, it chooses to forgo comedy and treats its subject material seriously, resulting in an ugly but honest look into surface tensions between locals and foreigners.
We follow the lives of a group of recruits during their basic military training over the course of a day. As they go through their obstacle courses, they get constantly hammered over the head with reprimanding screams from their commanders. Feeling frustrated, the recruits single out the two foreigners, an Indian and Chinese immigrant, to be the cause of all their problems.
Forget the funny stereotypes you see in most local films about the army, Kelvin Tong writes and directs Beijing, Mumbai, Tampines with anger and bitterness. The blatantly casual racism on display here is both chilling and disgusting, as recruit Li (Shi Lin Fan) and recruit Abishek (Jai Kishan) are discriminated and excluded from the rest of their platoon.
For most of the film we experience the misery and conflict that this platoon has with each other, which results in the psychological hell that recruit Li and Abishek goes through. Between the compassionless screaming sergeants and the frustrated local soldiers, it creates a fascinating commentary on how adversity can sometimes drive people apart instead of bringing them together.
Besides smart writing, Kelvin Tong uses a documentary style to make the audience feel like they’re in camp going through training with the soldiers. Shaky handheld shots puts us in the moment, and the lack of musical cues in favor of buzzing insect sounds helps to emphasise that we are in the jungle.
This is a fascinating short and I just wish it ran a little bit longer. The story resolves too quickly with a rushed ending that would have benefitted from some extra screen time. At just 10 minutes, some of the character development feels truncated and lacks emotional impact. I would have loved to see this short expanded to cover a week instead of just a day in the life of these quarrelsome soldiers.
Beijung, Mumbai, Tampines reveals an ugly side to national service that we rarely get to experience in films. It is uncompromisingly cold and shows us the bleak reality of casual racism in a setting that we often trivialise. More than anything else, it gets under your skin because of its realistic depiction of army life.