BIFF 2021 Review: ’24’4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
An examination of life and death through the experiences of a dead film sound recordist whose spirit is drawn to 24 places with sounds he must capture.
Director: Royston Tan
Cast: James Choong
Country: Singapore, Thailand
Runtime: 77 minutes
In 24, Royston Tan’s long-time collaborator and sound recordist James Choong plays a spirit of himself, who has to revisit 24 locales before he moves on.
What is immediately peculiar about the film is its fourth-wall-breaking approach. Choong is visible in every scene, stoically continuing with his sound recording role while life passes him by. A large proportion of these locations reference Tan’s filmography, including the credit sequence to his short 36 Ways to Say Good Morning, of which 24’s concept is built from.
Yet, the film is far from simply a walk down memory lane. It features staggering emotional depth — partly due to the narrative’s theme of fading memories but more so with Choong’s performance. Complete with beguiling cinematography and sound design, the deeply personal 24 is an outstanding film that highlights Tan’s prowess for unorthodox storytelling and a poetic reaffirmation of life after death.
The first question 24 posits to its audience is why it’s necessary for the sound recordist to be a constant presence throughout. Each scene is deliberately framed as such that it requires a modicum of effort to shift the gaze away from the main subjects. Even when Choong wanders through a dense pond filled with water lilies or while gathering off-screen narrations from the tunnel featured in 15, the visual focus remains on the towering boom mic and not on the sound recordist.
Perhaps the answer lies in the scene referencing the aforementioned 36 Ways to Say Good Morning. Here, the attention is drawn to the still-standing Pearl Bank Apartment, which was demolished in 2019 and is noticeably buried under construction cranes in the short. Each scene carries this same poetic lyricism of a ghost — being deliberately unseen and, well, being dead — being the only one able to capture fading traditions, histories and unseen struggles.
Choong often doubles as the only audience immediately present. A Chinese opera troupe, a musician playing the erhu, a musical performance for seniors — all seemingly playing only to empty seats and the camera. The line between these portraits and fiction is blurred through references to Tan’s films. Certain conversations and monologues have the unmistakable cadence of his works, complete with cameos from frequent collaborators.
It all creates a melancholic mood that lingers and eventually seeps into the film’s main narrative of Choong moving on to the afterlife. True to his professionalism, he hardly ‘breaks character’ — even at his own funeral. But when he does, his tiny actions and reactions relay the tremendous joy and pain that motivates all filmmaking.
A comforting pat on the shoulders of a distressed actor, smiling along to a candid conversation of three foul-mouthed gangsters complaining about Singapore life, taking a sip out of his takeaway drink while on the job — as much as the construction of each scene deliberately obfuscates Choong, these blink-and-miss-it moments represent the emotional core of 24 and are what ultimately shines through.
Also making the film prime for repeat watches are the astounding sound design and cinematography work by Rennie Gomes and Juan Qi An respectively. Even as scenes linger for extended periods, the enveloping aural and visual work makes it nearly impossible to soak in every intricate detail in one sitting.
So far, Tan’s filmography has been dominated by numerical titles and it seems deliberate for the number 24 to be reserved for such a personal film. Perhaps, it’s a reference to the often drawn-upon quote of cinema being truth at 24 frames per second. It certainly feels that way with how the blurring of lines only brings out and highlights the depth of humanity required for filmmaking. Amidst its macabre themes, 24 is a moving reaffirmation that, if nothing and no one else, film — and truth — can certainly outlast our brief lifetimes.
24 made its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival 2021, where it is in the running for the Kim Jiseok award. Sinema.SG caught the film via the festival’s online screening platform for the media. Tan shared in an interview with The Straits Times that he hopes to give the film its local premiere at the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival, with a wider release next year.
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