Deep, Dark, and Bittersweet, INNOCENTS is a Slow-burning Reminder About the Fragility of Innocence
During the monsoon season in 1980s Singapore, Syafiqah enters a new school where she befriends Huat, an ostracised boy. Misunderstood and bullied, they escape to the giant storm drains behind their school, carving out a fragile world of fantasy and freedom. Eventually, a vow of secrecy forces her to embark on a quest of independence well beyond her years
In this delicate political allegory, Chen-Hsi Wong’s sensitive imagery and honest performances investigate memories of childhood within the paternal landscape of a city-state.
Director: Chen-Hsi Wong
Cast: Nameera Ashley, Cai Chengyue, Hanisah
Language: English and Malay with English subtitles
Runtime: 88 minutes
Watching Innocents is a lot like curling up with a book or a glass of wine (or hot chocolate) on a gloomy day and putting on loop that playlist you curated specially for sad, slow days. It’s deep, it’s raw, it’s a slow-burner with a lasting impact on its viewers.
Innocents is a film about innocence… and how easily it shatters – even though it stars two adorable child actors, it is clear that the lead, Syafiqah (Nameera Ashley) and co-lead Huat (Cai Chengyue) are not your run-off-the-mill 10-year-olds. They are outcasts in their own ways, oppressed by ignorant adults, neglected by parents and driven far from the innocent joyful path we’d expect from these tiny humans.
Huat stood out more for me in terms of his complexity which is unique for most child characters. His unchanging expression and bad posture fit the bill of a budding rebel but he doesn’t cause any trouble. In fact, fearing his alcoholic father more than anything, he tries to stay away from trouble, and people in general.
He’s a boy of few words and when he does speak, his lines are so profound and delivered with an indifference that seems unfitting for a child. He seems most comfortable with the new transfer student, Syafiqah, smiling more, speaking more as they just loiter and frolic about. But the dark colour palette and the locations they are in – a rail-track and a massive drain – show there’s more to this than meets the eye. They evoke a sense of sadness juxtaposed to the fun that they have, and are more aligned with the deep conversations they engage in.
Their friendship and what we see of it marks the end of their innocence – when a friendship is sparked from their shared loneliness of being outcasts in school and misunderstood at home.
Don’t expect a straightforward coming-of-age narrative. Some patience is required to interpret and fully appreciate this film. From the dialogue to the supporting characters, the narrative devices in this film deliberately hint at a deeper meaning. It can’t be a coincidence that every adult in the film is dislikeable, choosing to brush off Syafiqah and Huat’s incomprehensible behaviour.
Although the narrative devices in the story are commendable, the stylistic choices in the film are limited. The story may be set in the 80s but the use of washed out tones throughout to evoke this nostalgic, old-school vibe sometimes tips too far into bleakness for my tastes.
The progression of the story is slow and, watching it, you can’t help but think it could be leaner. But this would mean compromising the depth of the film as every long-drawn silence is packed with meaning. As Syafiqah and Huat avoid home and sit in silence, the minimal sound design – the rush of water in the train, birdsongs, whistling trees – is layered above emotions that the kids themselves cannot put into words.
The film succeeds as a slow-burner. It ends on a cliff-hanger in the wake of which lie bigger questions for reflection. These are kids we’re watching but they seem more like old souls trapped in young bodies. By dealing with this genre in a dark and mature way and leaving us with a cliff-hanger, we are left wondering – what does it mean to be innocent?
Innocents is one from a line-up of female-directed films revolving around the themes of homelessness, solitude and adversity screened at the N.O.W (Not Ordinary Work) Film Weekend.
N.O.W. is a three-week public project. From 2019-2021, Noorlinah Mohamed, established actress and arts educator, is appointed N.O.W.’s Artistic Director. For the next three years, she focuses on celebrating women creators, thinkers, and change-makers, and their approach to making a difference. Led by women and supported by women production, technical and administrative teams, N.O.W. makes visible the multifaceted and capable women, their voices and their not ordinary work. From performance to film, music to visual arts, workshops to talks, N.O.W. spotlights her process, her thoughts and her creation. Experimental, deliciously weird, and yes, fun, these works explore the conversations women creators and thinkers have with the world – and each other.