REVIEWS

With a Razor-Sharp Focus on Storytelling, INVISIBLE STORIES Sets a High Bar for What Is Possible With a Local Series

23 January 2020

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With a Razor-Sharp Focus on Storytelling, INVISIBLE STORIES Sets a High Bar for What Is Possible With a Local Series

Invisible Stories shines light into dark corners and tells untold stories from the heartlands in a fictional neighbourhood housing estate in multicultural Singapore. Each episode follows one resident as he or she navigates through everyday life and its challenges.

Director: Ler Jiyuan

Episode 1 Cast: Yeo Yann Yann, Devin Pan
Episode 2 Cast: Wang Yuqing, Aden Tan
Episode 3 Cast: Suchada Muller, Sunny Pang

Year: 2020

Country: Singapore

Language: English, Hokkien, Mandarin, Thai, 

Runtime: 30 minutes each episode


Invisible Stories sets a high bar for what is possible with a local series. While there are countless local films and series abound based around the social realist genre, this series stands out with its deft direction and superb performances. 

As of the time of writing, HBO Asia has released the first three episodes of Invisible Stories, marking the season’s halfway mark. The series looks to illuminate the rarely told stories and perspectives in Singapore. 

Episode one, Lian, stars Yeo Yann Yann as an underprivileged, overburdened mother taking care of her autistic son. The second episode, Chuan, sees veteran local actor Wang Yuqing as a grief-stricken taxi driver by day, spiritual medium by night, dealing with the loss of his wife while navigating his relationship with his estranged son. Episode three, June, unravels the story of three sex workers from Thailand and their struggles with love and intimacy.

When it comes to the social realist genre, I think it’s easy – and tempting, I’m sure – for filmmakers to overreach and turn their stories into allegories about social ills. There always has to be a broader message or some sharp-tongued critique. I felt that the characters of Invisible Stories felt more human exactly because the series doesn’t stumble into this pitfall. Their issues aren’t stratified around the usual lines of race, class, or religion but based around the very immediate problems they face everyday. 

The series never looks to criticise their decisions or the larger systemic reasons for their plight, consistently presenting their stories as is. When it engages the larger issue of poverty in Lian, it centres on the turbulence of a distressed mother. When it examines the struggles of sex workers, the series highlights the strength in the determination of its characters, and not through some rah-rah message about empowerment or by presenting a take on the morality of prostitution. 

Even if it takes an actor having to go through training to be a spiritual medium like with Wang in Chuan, or to have an entire episode spoken in Thai in June, there is clear dedication to present the stories in its most naked light. Taken together, it’s with all these elements that radiates a sense of engaging rawness and truthfulness throughout the series. 

The trim cast further emphasises the bleeding heart of its narratives. Free of any side-plots and with the spotlight shining firmly on them, its leads bravely tackle the heavy emotions required by the series. From Yeo’s shell-shocking performance as Lian to the calibrated performance of Thailand’s Suchada Muller as June, each of the leads effortlessly knock their performances out of the park. 

Director Ler Jiyuan places full confidence in his actors – perhaps most visibly with a spectacular sequence in Chuan. Ler holds a long, patient medium shot on Wang, leaving the actor to slowly – and painfully – unravel the mostly stoic Chuan with his long pent-up grief. 

I deeply appreciated the series’ direction in this aspect, leaving its audience to fully appreciate the craft these actors bring to the screen. There is a clear vision for Invisible Stories to be a performance-driven series with almost every frame occupied by its leads, accompanied by ample use of close-ups to capture every emotional nuance. 

While much of its world is illuminated by the familiar street lights of Singapore, they are distilled into washed, gentle colours creating a dreamy atmosphere for the series. This palette accentuates the bittersweet tone that comes with each episode’s end, bookended by the poetic music of Leslie Low. With its characters having been through a significant low-point in their life, they look ahead not with hope, but with the realisation to carry on without it.

I think every Singaporean recognises that their home is far from the squeaky-clean, prosperous country that it’s more widely seen as, and that there is an innate appetite to see Singapore on their screens in a far more unflattering light. While I feel that Invisible Stories does scratch that itch, it’s never presented with that intention in mind. It’s a series that simply determines to tell stories – and it absolutely excels with that. 

The first three episodes of Invisible Stories are now available on HBO GO, with new episodes premiering every Sunday at 10pm. 

Read all about series showrunner Ler Jiyuan’s process behind Invisible Stories, his experience working with HBO Asia, and so much more in our 100 Seconds On The Red Sofa episode with the local director.

Check out the series’ trailer:

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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