Despite Several Missteps, ‘Ah Boys To Men’ Stands Firm as a Local Classic
A privileged and impulsive young man attempts to escape mandatory service in his nation’s army so he could study abroad with his girlfriend
Director: Jack Neo
Cast: Tosh Zhang, Weiliang Wang, Noah Yap, Joshua Tan, Richard Low, Irene Ang
Language: English, Mandarin, Hokkien
Runtime: 110 minutes
I was in my ‘film snob’ phase when Ah Boys To Men hit theatres back in 2012. Although I never caught the movie, I was quick to agree with comments from both online and off about how the film is trashy, dumb and just bad – all because it had Jack Neo’s name attached.
Even today, Ah Boys To Men is still being pelted online. The film’s iTunes store page has two one-star reviews as recent as January 2020. With Ah Boys To Men now available on Netflix, I decided to finally take the plunge – and was left with a deep feeling that I sorely missed out.
The film opens by imagining the unimaginable – modern Singapore under siege by an invading force. Despite the grim circumstances, Neo still takes the time to naturally insert his own humorous and satirical view of Singaporean attitudes to great effect. However, the sequence eventually takes a much more serious turn. Using the deadly concoction of familiar HDB blocks in ruins and bloodied corpses in its void decks, the film sets a sobering tone and an important reminder of the vulnerability of home.
Yet, Ah Boys To Men is hardly the rah-rah, patriotic film that its opening sequence would suggest.
Centering around Ken Chow (Joshua Tan), a youth bitter about enlistment, the film is unafraid in showing the doubts and anger common in most Singaporean guys and their families at that point of their lives. He and his family’s attempts at escaping National Service are played up for laughs but the underlying concerns and emotions are never mocked.
It is with this same tone where the more problematic themes of Ah Boys To Men arise. Most beats should be recognisable to anyone who has been through Basic Military Training (BMT) – from the training and growing camaraderie to the various concerns and fears.
In the same vein, it also brings into focus the ugly familiarities, such as the majority speaking Mandarin and Hokkien amongst themselves even when they are with fellow enlistees of other races. This might raise the issue of perpetuating non-inclusive behaviour, and it might limit the experience portrayed to be a Chinese one.
Joining Ken in his BMT journey are a slew of easily identifiable stereotypes. Similar to most of his other works, it is with each character’s loud personalities and unique quirks where Neo’s funny bone shines. Quick quips and verbal jabs amongst themselves keep the film paced like a collection of skits, while never taking too much away from the central plot and its beats.
Lobang (Wang Weiliang) and ‘IP Man’ (Noah Yap), both stereotypical Chinese hooligan-types, carry the Mandarin and Hokkien-laden banter and jokes convincingly well. Yet, it is nevertheless frustrating that most of the humour is lost in translation, especially when they are meant to carry the film with a lead ho-hum about everything. Furthermore, there are more than a few moments of disingenuous laughter by the surrounding cast to sink the humour even if the jokes are fine.
Most of the main cast are great in their roles. Wang and Yap, in particular, come off natural and relatable – so much so that they don’t feel like they are playing characters. In terms of character performances, Maxi Lim stands out as Aloysius, a poindexter who is determined to give his best for National Service but is at the butt end of most jokes. The stereotype, particularly in this context, can come off as overbearing and nauseating but Maxi plays the role fleshed out enough to leave room for sympathy and rootability.
The film’s lead, however, is not as interesting. Feeding into Ken’s malaise is his longing to be studying abroad with his girlfriend. For many, this frustration of having to halt one’s studies is a relatable one. Similarly for the experience of being dumped, and the subsequent misery and overreaction.
Unfortunately, instead of letting these very real emotions play out naturally, the film elects for a melodramatic approach that clumsily falters. To no fault of Joshua Tan’s performance, this isn’t helped by how Ken was never set up to be a likeable character at least until the very end; him learning his lesson feels unearned and far too abrupt.
Capturing it all is camera work that does its job well enough. Beyond the special effects heavy opening sequence, Ah Boys To Men feels like a television production. However, with the film looking to lean into comfortable relatability more so than telling a unique story, this isn’t necessarily a noticeable issue. Its collection of no-nonsense shots still keeps the audience engaged with the characters and their winning chemistry.
The film’s frequent flashbacks to the National Service experience of the past should be highlighted as well with sets and costumes that never felt out of place for its time. There are definitely moments that are sappy – particularly with the frequent use of slow motion and overcompensating music – but these moments are sparse enough to not overstay its welcome.
With the lead’s story outside of the army somewhat falling flat, this leaves Ah Boys To Men to be largely a retelling of most Singaporeans’ experience with National Service. This proves to be a double edged sword. On one hand, the film is handicapped by its humour and premise in being unable to resonate with anyone outside of Singapore. On the other, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
For those still awaiting their enlistment, National Service is undoubtedly filled with worries, loathsomeness and agonies for both the enlistee and his family. Much like 1996’s Army Daze before, Ah Boys To Men will not banish those thoughts and emotions, but it does present a comforting acknowledgement of them, together with beats and characters that would prove to be shockingly relatable for many. It’s not a perfect representation or guide for anyone but it’s still a guide nevertheless.
Couple this with Neo’s uncanny ability to tap into the Singaporean zeitgeist through satirical observations and natural dialogue and it is no wonder that Ah Boys To Men was the highest-grossing Singaporean film of all time – only to be beaten by its sequel.
Problematic issues and all, it’s a film that is extremely emblematic of Singapore life; one that is truly by Singaporeans, for Singaporeans. Ah Boys To Men is as tenacious, as brash, and as imperfect as the thousands and thousands of young men who have and will go through this rite of passage.
Catch Ah Boys To Men streaming now on Netflix.
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