Film Review: 80s Nostalgia Runs High in Jack Neo’s Latest ‘The Diam Diam Era’
Following the Lim family from the Long Long Time Ago series, the film focuses on Ah Kun’s son Yong Xin and Zhao Di’s son Shun Fa. It explores the attitudes, life views and differences between the young generation, their different reactions and treatment of policies implemented in Nation Building from the founding of Singapore to the present, modern developed country.
Director: Jack Neo
Cast: Mark Lee, Richie Koh, Danny Lee, Macy Meixin, Henry Thia, Wang Lei, Yap Hui Xin, Regina Lin, Suhaimi Yusof, Silvarajoo Prakasam
Languages: Mandarin, English
Runtime: 110 minutes
The Diam Diam Era 《我们的故事之沉默的年代》is, by no means, new territory for director Jack Neo. The film continues to tug on nostalgia while using Neo’s trademark effervescent humour to disguise social commentaries. This time, however, The Diam Diam Era feels far more personal, measured and pointed even if familiar pitfalls are still present.
While the film is a continuation of the highly-acclaimed Long Long Time Ago series, those jumping in will not feel too lost. The Diam Diam Era continues the story of the Lim family, following their trials and tribulations as they adapt to the radical changes in 1980s Singapore.
Amongst these is the adaptation of English as the main lingua franca in Singapore’s education system and the perceived erasure of Chinese culture. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength comes with how it channels this policy into personable narratives. The first half of the film is centred on Ah Kun’s (Mark Lee) son Yong Xin (Danny Lee) and Zhao Di’s (Aileen Tan) son Shun Fa (Richie Koh). The two cousins are slowly torn apart due to their educational backgrounds and academic performance.
The Chinese-educated Shun Fa struggles with his English-taught schoolwork. Yong Xin, on the other hand, excels. This gulf leads the way for family drama based around the familiar circumstances of unfair comparisons between relatives and biases based around academic success.
The difficulties to adapt is felt throughout the Lim family. These make for light-hearted, comical communication breakdowns between taxi driver Ah Kun and English-speaking bureaucracies but takes a more dramatic turn with Shun Fa’s immediate family. Faced with similar challenges in the language barrier and with their mother passed on, Shun Fa’s oldest sister Su Ting (Macy Meixin) struggles at work supporting her three younger siblings while juggling the responsibility of raising them.
While these hardships are never insurmountable, they still lay the foundation for sentimental scenes shared between the siblings, delivered well by the cast. Adding onto its weight is the performance of Mark Lee as the boastful uncle Ah Kun; a sharp departure from his likeable character in Number 1. Here, Lee, yet again, showcases his range bouncing between hilarity and loathsomeness.
These poignant scenes would resonate even more if not for two main limiting factors. The performances are engaging all around yet it gets easy to distance from the emotional impacts when it gets distractingly clear that the actors’ ages do not match up, cheapening the youthful vulnerability that the script asks of their paper-thin characters. These are exacerbated by the film’s scattershot approach in moods, making it susceptible to emotional whiplash with tearful scenes followed by comedic skits and vice versa.
Still, The Diam Diam Era’s spotlight of these struggles would be much more subversive – albeit, not as outwardly so – compared to the film’s buzz of Lee’s character starting an opposition party (hilariously named “CMI”). The last third of the film is set up for this arc, which will be the centrepiece of the series’ fourth instalment slated for release early next year.
Those looking for a takedown will probably be disappointed, given how Ah Kun is often played up for laughs and ridicule. If anything, it feels like the opposite might happen, with the character essentially being a caricature of anti-government sentiments.
Still, the delightful cast of colourful characters set up here does make me excited for the sequel, which is shaping up to be an over-the-top clash of personalities.
Where The Diam Diam Era undoubtedly excels is with the care put in to depict the 1980s. The film might prove to be a lethal dose of nostalgia for Chinese Singaporeans who grew up during that period, especially with a soundtrack consisting of familiar Xinyao and dialect hits. Xinyao was its peak back then, and the sight of a crowded Bras Basah Complex in the film may even draw out some sentimental tears.
What I particularly enjoyed is with how The Diam Diam Era never found it necessary to outwardly explain how life was back then. A lot may be lost for the younger audience (myself included), but they also make way for discoveries that feel natural and earned. The film never relies on nostalgia as a crutch either, being more than capable to engage with its story, camera work, and an array of interesting decisions with lighting and colours.
In between the drama and sentimentalism is a bundle of laughs found throughout the film. Love it or hate it, director Neo’s humour hasn’t missed a beat with long-time colleagues Henry Thia and Mark Lee helming the comedy portions.
There is a noticeable lack of slapstick compared to Neo’s other films. However, a lot of the humour will be lost for non-Mandarin speakers given the continued reliance on puns and wordplay. This would be emblematic of the film’s overall approach, carrying with it an overwhelmingly Chinese view of the period that feels collar tugging at times – especially when the adaptation of English was a monumental change felt by almost all Singaporeans.
The Diam Diam Era is a measured take on Neo’s tried and true formula, allowing more of the director’s passion and heart to shine through. However, the familiar pitfalls of his films are also present here, making it a difficult recommendation for non-Mandarin speakers. Regardless, the film will be solid entertainment for the whole (Chinese) family and a splendid set up for what is shaping up to be an exhilarating sequel.
– Interview: Ong Kuo Sin 王国燊, Director of Golden Horse Award-nominated Film ‘Number 1’《男儿王》
– Interview: Ko Chen-Nien 柯貞年, Director of ‘The Silent Forest’ 《無聲》
– Despite Several Missteps, ‘Ah Boys To Men’ Stands Firm as a Local Classic
Image credits: MM2 Entertainment