Film Review: Dystopian Teen Drama ‘Faeryville’ Leaves Bare the Thin Line Between Ideology and Extremism7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
Youthful idealism becomes an excuse for terror – when a new boy joins a clique of loser misfits in Faeryville College.
Director: Tzang Merwyn Tong
Cast: Lyon Sim, Farid Assalam, Jae Leung, Aaron Samuel Yong, Tanya Graham, Jade Griffin, Kris Moller
Runtime: 95 minutes
Local dystopian film Faeryville, directed by Tzang Merwyn Tong, has all the makings of an underappreciated cult classic; a rare piece of art with such contagious energy that can only be dispelled by feverishly grabbing someone else by the shoulders and talking about it.
Powering it all is the film’s singular ambition to realise its vision. Faeryville oozes style and personality — so much so that they tend to overflow and muddy the overall execution of its story. Yet, the ideas it puts across remains pure, stern and even prophetic. The film’s portrayal and commentary on how societal divides and ideologies can so easily fall prey to extremism and radicalism are astoundingly relevant in today’s world.
Faeryville is seemingly never concerned about what the audience might think of it, and it is this exact devil-may-care attitude that — ironically — proves itself necessary to be remembered as a noteworthy addition to Singapore cinema.
The first question audiences will wrestle with is if Faeryville is set in the Singapore we know, although the film’s first jolting imagery, a saint-like statue carrying a revolver, should be a clear indication otherwise. The statue is the icon of Faeryville College, a premier educational institution featuring cliques familiar to countless Western teen dramas.
There are the frats and jocks who swagger around browbeating anyone not privileged enough to be part of their group. On the opposite end are the Nobodies, a trio of outcasts disillusioned by their directionless lives. They are soon joined by Laer (Aaron Samuel Yong), a brooding new student to the College who takes their low-level revenge ploys to destructive new heights.
Watching Faeryville for the first time in 2021 was an evocative experience. The film pulls in two directions — towards the past and the future. It conjures the post-9/11 world, where Green Day and My Chemical Romance ruled the airwaves and the emo movement was the coolest thing a teenager could be a part of.
This period of time, while integral to the film’s story, has the unfortunate baggage of feeling dated within the popular consciousness even by the time of the film’s release. It’s a zeitgeist Faeryville fully leans on, featuring plenty of garish monologues about society’s pretentiousness and the meaningless of life, with marijuana use and homemade bombs only adding to the edge and angst.
The film, however, gives its dated aesthetics purpose; 9/11 arguably marks the start of how we arrived in today’s divisive world. With this backdrop, Faeryville presents a compelling story of how young minds could easily be distorted by extremism under the guise of purpose and ideology. There are the bullies and the bullied but there are never truly any Right or Wrong. Faeryville constantly riles up pressing questions relevant today.
Hanging over the film’s events is the death of W. Ashe Faeke (featured in Tzang’s short film e’Tzaintes and played by the director himself), a social outcast who has become a patron saint to fellow misfits, believing that he was shot by the school for rebelling against the system.
The motivations of the Nobodies — first consisting of Poe (Lyon Sim), Taurus (Farid Assalam) and CK (Jae Leung) — are largely unclear, despite the best efforts of a handful of monologues and expositions. They too admire Faeke, but the film never makes it known what exactly it is about the school, their schoolmates or even their lives that is worth rebelling against; they are mostly left untouched by the fraternities and the school’s authority while being relatively joyous amongst their own company.
Yet, perhaps that may exactly be the film’s point. The number of layers introduced here allows for several interpretations of the film’s events. It almost feels like a deliberate litmus test. Viewers will be surprised by who they end up relating with and feel for by the story’s end.
The film stumbles while looking to shrink large ideas to fit Faeryville College. Sim, Assalam, Leung are solid in their roles but they do have the tall task of embodying teenage angst and disillusion. Without clear threats, the relatability of their motivations largely hinges on how viewers are able to connect with these characters’ moments in time.
While believable in the role of a school principal, Mr Matthias (Kris Moller) sorely lacks the menace found in a dystopian setting to make any form of rebellion worth getting behind. Meanwhile, the school’s bullies are one-dimensional and rely on the audience’s familiarity with the frat boy trope to etch out antagonism. Perhaps most undercooked is Belle’s (Tanya Graham) arc, a once-notorious rebel now ‘institutionalised’ and offered a chance at assimilation, with emotions held back by Graham’s first-time performance and over-complicated by an implied budding romantic relationship with Chloe (Jade Griffin), the school’s star reporter.
It feels like too many shorthands are used to represent big ideas, yet Faeryville moves with such deliberate energy that it’s impossible not to be wrapped up in the ongoings. Shot compositions under a keen directing eye bring boatloads of personality and flair to the film. Around every corner, whether it be with the script or visual storytelling, there is an unrelenting push to realise the film’s vision, such as with the liberal use of extras to give Faeryville College a sense of scale.
The frantic action sequences are another highlight; so raw and tense that it’s hard to determine if it’s the excellent foley work doing the heavy lifting, or if the performers did leave the set with more than a few bruises. Pushing the film forward is Alex Oh’s excellent soundtrack, punctuated by contributions from local bands In Each Hand a Cutlass and The Great Spy Experiment.
It is both unfortunate and oddly appropriate that Faeryville’s emo aesthetics might rub audiences the wrong way. The weight is doubled by the film’s context feeling removed from Singapore, leapfrogging to mirror dynamics more familiar in Western schools instead. Yet, the film is never hampered by these, only defiantly swinging them around to secure its spot amongst notable local films.
Faeryville so fiercely champions emotions and outlooks we look to eradicate from our younger days — the rebellion, the anti-conformist stylings, the angst, and the tendency to inflate situations into life and death manners. It never stops, never catches its breath, always determined to bring across a story the team is very clearly committed to, channelling commentary and insights on partisanship even more pertinent now than when the film was released.
The only true knock on Faeryville is its overambition — but, then again, ambition is always in short supply here in Singapore.
Check out this recently uploaded interview with director Tzang Merwyn Tong where he expands on the ideas and themes behind Faeryville: