Film Review: Anthology film ‘1400’ Searches For Solace Amidst Singapore’s Red Light District5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Four intertwined stories explore the notion of love in a hotel, how important love is, to what extremes we go to make it happen, but in different situations and circumstances, the outcomes may be more than what we bargain for.
Director: Derrick Lui
Cast: Desmond Tan, Xu Yahui, Vincent Tee, William Lawandi, Maria Alexandria, Angeline Yap
Language: Mandarin, English
Runtime: 89 minutes
The story behind Singapore drama 1400 is well-documented: Director Derrick Lui moving heaven and earth for seven years to realise his first feature film, holding multiple roles in the process and having to complete its shoot in just five days.
It remains a stirring example of the lengths Singaporean filmmakers have to go to realise their visions — and with how the film earnestly depicts its heartfelt collection of stories, it’s not difficult to feel the passion that fueled the endeavour. The film saw a limited theatrical run in 2015 and now — finally — joins the lineup of Singaporean films on Netflix.
Pacing itself like a retelling of personal stories, technical limitations are swatted aside and almost take a backseat to the raw human drama behind its exploration of love and lust. While its four stories are not afforded equal opportunities to shine, there are still plenty of standout moments, especially when veteran actor Vincent Tee takes centre stage.
1400 centres around four groups in search of love and belonging in the seedy parts of Singapore. Partially deaf musician Rain (Desmond Tan) earns a keep at a hotel while chasing his dream of being a full-fledged musician, striking up a relationship with a blind florist Summer (Xu Yahui) in the process. James (Vincent Tee) seeks solace looking to find a semblance of his dead wife in the arms of sex workers. Two high-flying married professionals, Paul (William Lawandi) and Janice (Maria Alexandria), engage in an adulterous affair. Moon (Angeline Yap) toils to make ends meet by doubling as a hairstylist and a sex worker, but finds an opportunity for escape through genuine love.
The film constantly works with the contrast between its setting and characters, opening with the sights of the red light districts set to aloof classical music. The context and themes are handled maturely, honing in on the emotional murkiness underneath the neon glitz. Passion is never felt or seen in scenes of intimacy. There is a palpable void in all four stories. And while characters rarely cross paths, they all essentially look for the flowers — the escapes from loneliness — that could bloom amidst the dour setting.
These four stories are expressed relatively well, although their resonance varies. Perhaps held back by time constraints, Paul and Janice’s story feels unexplored, only stopping by to showcase the pervasiveness of adultery and how both fail to — or are unable to — cherish what the other characters long for. Moon’s double life creates ample room for tragedy but the emotional blows are hampered by a monotone portrayal.
Rain and Summer’s love story provides brief respites from the tumultuous lives surrounding them by virtue of being the most conventional. Backed by solid performances from the pair, they represent a glimmer of purity amidst all the grey.
It is also from this plot thread that makes the disconnect between what is scripted and filmed feel most apparent. While clearly written with intention, the hope that emanates from their romance is definitely softened by how their surroundings — a hotel that is a little too well-kept and classy — find it difficult to draw out the griminess of the context. 1400 is undoubtedly hindered by its budget but is rarely limited by it.
James’ story remains the film’s emotional centrepiece. Tee brings a fantastic range to his character that perfectly challenges the perception behind those who are most commonly thought of to procure sexual services. Moving from terrifying frustration to palpable loss so effortlessly is no small feat, and in the process, he creates an engaging character that anchors 1400.
Where the film stutters is with how these stories eventually conclude. They each begin and flow with the frankness and cadence of personal stories or hearsay, but takes rough turns towards melodrama by their ends. It leads to a strange mix of emotional takeaways, where a pinch less of tragedy would do wonders for its collection of plausible and eye-opening stories. It’s one of the film’s few emotional overflows that do affect the overall work.
Just as characters search for purity in a seemingly hopeless place, the film’s team, too, answered to their emotional passions amidst bleak circumstances. Despite the abundance of human drama, there is still, inevitably, a sense of frustration for how the film’s intention could always be felt but never truly fully realised. Certainly, like all night flowers, 1400’s beauty is best appreciated within the uncertain darkness it bloomed from.
Earlier this year, director Derrick Lui shared with Sinema.SG about his start in the industry and about his upcoming film, Oversteer, Singapore’s first racing-themed movie — read all about it in our feature interview here.
Stream 1400 on Netflix: