Grasping at Singaporean Malaise, ‘12 Storeys’ Is an Outstanding Family Drama Still Relevant 20 Years On5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Told through the perspective of three households, the film depicts a day in a HDB block of residential flats in Singapore with all the action occurring within a 24-hour period.
Director: Eric Khoo
Cast: Jack Neo, Koh Boon Pin, Chuan Yi Fong, Lum May Yee, Lucilla Teoh, Ritz Lim
Language: English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Tagalog, Cantonese, Malay
Runtime: 105 minutes
The first Singaporean film selected for the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section in 1997, Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys is a touchstone of local cinema. Now streaming on Netflix together with a roster of classic Singaporean films and series, experiencing the film that arguably opened up opportunities for a generation of local filmmakers perhaps makes it a great starting point for exploring Singapore cinema.
Beginning with an exceptionally stylised opening sequence, a HDB block awakens to the news of a man’s plunge from the eponymous 12th storey. Yet, hardly anyone seems to care, with an elderly crowd standing over his body in sullen silence. This event, however, sets the film’s arresting tone as it seeps into a day of the lives of three households.
12 Storeys explores three narratives: a disintegrating marriage, an adopted daughter’s crumbling self-esteem, and a fracturing relationship between siblings. Bouncing between the three is an ambitious feat well-executed by Khoo. Transitioning with the occasional crossing of paths and subtle visual cues, these seemingly insulated stories are connected through a central theme of household tensions arising from competing beliefs.
Pensive extreme closeups are liberally used throughout, creating an air of gloom that hangs above all three stories. The mood is doubled-down with the film’s washed colours and use of light surrealism to accentuate its constantly moody beats. Mundane coffee shop talks serving as interludes look to lighten the mood but these are still helplessly drowned out by the film’s overwhelming focus on its sole tone.
While this undeniably makes 12 Storeys a heavy watch, the film’s constant buildup of tension does set the stage for some spectacular acting. With my only frame of reference being his work in comedies, Jack Neo’s exceptional performance here was a bonafide shock. He disappears into his role as Ah Gu, a down-on-his-luck middle-aged man struggling to piece back his ailing marriage. Nailing the quirks familiar with his character type, his portrayal is capped off with an absolutely heart-wrenching emotional unravelment at his marriage’s Rubicon.
It’s a crescendo that the film repeats with its story of the growing disconnect between older brother Meng (Koh Boon Pin) and younger sister Trixie (Lum May Yee), done half as well due to its buildup. The fault mainly lies in their scenes feeling far too dragged, definitely not helped by the occasional slips into overdramatisation both in the dialogue and the performances.
There are definitely instances where the film’s style works in the narrative’s favour, particularly with San San (Lucilla Teoh) and her struggles with her overcritical mother. Long scenes play out with the elderly matriarch frustratingly droning on and on about San San’s shortcomings – it’s irritating, but it’s supposed to be. Furthermore, this plot does avoid the film’s main weakness.
I enjoyed the film’s blueprint with how its stories are built both in its visually and narrative style. However, it being constructed out of caricatures does sap both the film’s believability and intensity. Lily (Chuan Yi Fong), Ah Gu’s wife from China, practically represents the typical xenophobic views shared by an unfortunate number of Singaporeans. Meng is a stereotype both as a poindexter (right down to proudly wearing a “my block is the cleanest” shirt) and as an overprotective relative obsessed with family values.
While the mileage might vary for audiences, I still feel that this weakness is circumnavigated with the depth of each character unearthed throughout the film. I particularly enjoyed how this was brought across despite 12 Storeys being split into three narratives, with a deft in balance that highlights finesse. This much needed complexity kept the characters grounded and their drama gripping, especially with how all three plots are merely glimpses into larger, surely life-spanning stories.
For better and for worse, it is perhaps with the film’s overwhelmingly downcast mood and occasional overdramatisations that could make 12 Storeys the genesis of the common and often parodied trope of local independent cinema being overly melancholic. Yet, 12 Storeys is far from just a film curio analysed today to detail how far local films have since come.
It stands tall on its own as an exceptional family drama, blending the familiar sounds and backgrounds of everyday Singapore with the visual and narrative complexity offered by arthouse sensibilities to create a film that is sharply unique.
While it feels slightly dated mainly due to its aesthetics and setting, the film’s style has hardly aged a day. Even in 2020, 12 Storeys remains a cutting insight into the malaise of everyday Singaporeans, perhaps made even more potent today with the cold world inadvertently heralded by social media.
12 Storeys, together with a slew of beloved Singapore films and series (with even more soon to come), are now available for streaming on Netflix. In the meantime, check out the trailer to the local classic below:
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