Film Review: ‘Ah Girls Go Army’5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
The comedy follows the first batch of female recruits in a future where low birth rates have made it necessary for young women to serve National Service.
Director: Jack Neo
Cast: Apple Chan, Glenn Yong, Ke Le, Belle Chua, Xixi Lim, Samantha Tan
Language: English, Mandarin
Runtime: 118 minutes
The not-so-secret formula for Jack Neo’s success is his eloquence in entertainingly bringing to life what he knows, feels and experienced — which happens to be the same emotions, sentiments and fears shared by millions of Singaporeans. But what happens when Neo is disconnected from the well he has always drawn from? Ah Girls Go Army thoroughly tests this formula by being a work of complete fiction. And for the first time in his incredible career, Neo is out of his element.
An even steeper decline in birth rate has made it necessary for young women to serve National Service. Ah Girls Go Army follows a pioneer batch of recruits in GBMT (Girls Basic Military Training) as they survive military training and butt heads along the way because of their different backgrounds and conflicting personalities. With such a straightforward premise, the film almost writes itself — but it is exactly this apparent ease and how the film succumbs to being on cruise control that dooms Ah Girls Go Army.
Ah Boys to Men got by with paper-thin characters with hokey names because they are usually stand-ins for people we know or have encountered in our lives. We don’t have this connection with Ah Girls Go Army. Women don’t serve National Service. We can’t supplement what is missing from the script with our own experiences, especially when every character is an exaggerated and unrelatable archetype. They can’t exist without the reality we can’t provide.
Every character has a type — but that’s pretty much it. For most of this cast of caricatures, their main character moments come from the film’s first five minutes, where they are a slight head tilt away from spelling out their characters directly to the camera. We never get to see the inner turmoil synonymous with those first few months in National Service.
The film’s main dramatic arc comes with Recruit Joey’s (Bella Chua) struggle with a breakup. It leads to a truly frightening scene that finds her on the edge of a rooftop. Even more terrifying is how the film treats the situation with levity and hand-waving.
There’s a lot to be picked between the lines in Ah Girls Go Army. There’s with how Girls in the film’s title is taken rather literally with most characters acting like children rather than young adults. There’s with how the film doesn’t take the time to develop its characters but takes the time for sponsors and to take shots at complaining parents.
Still, what is most frustrating about Ah Girls Go Army is how the film disregards the imaginative opportunities presented by its premise. There are even more opportunities for gripping drama here compared to Ah Boys to Men, such as with the woes of a single mother recruit and perhaps even with the recruits’ anxiety as they plunge into unknown territory as a pioneer batch.
Instead, the film mainly misuses its opportunity to etch out comedy through negative stereotypes — stereotypes that, frankly, are so archaic that they have transcended beyond being insulting. There is absolutely no excuse for why the young women are portrayed to be this infantile. The film constantly leads us to truly question whether there is a sizeable and bankable number of Singaporeans who feel the same way about women. And that’s a depressing rabbit hole, so often a solace throughout experiencing Ah Girls Go Army, that has the completely opposite intentions of a lighthearted comedy.
To each actor’s credit, everyone fully commits to their roles, bringing some depth and likeability to otherwise dead-end characters. Both Apple Chan and Glenn Yong, starring as 2LT Roxanne and 2SG Chow respectively, bring passable performances, but both lack the oomph required for their roles.
These performances, unfortunately, fall under the shadow of Fish Chaar, who is absolutely fantastic in his role as the company’s OC. The presence he brings to the screen is the film’s only anchor that reminds audiences that Ah Girls Go Army is about the army and all the pride and sense of duty that defines National Service. His performance almost makes up for the price of admission alone, with an interesting arc brewing between Recruit Joey and 2LT Roxanne being a tempting offer to catch the film’s sequel.
Ah Girls Go Army would have gotten by if it is solely a find-replace job of Ah Boys to Men’s script. Where, when, how and why the film deviates from the structure makes for an overall puzzling experience; an experience that will certainly draw the ire of millennials. The film’s premise is the joke: “Women in the army? Can meh? They won’t survive lah!” Even then, the film also takes turns that seemingly works for nobody, even for those beguiled by the gimmick of women serving National Service. The cast of characters is far too underwritten and disconnected from reality to be memorable.
No matter how one feels about Neo’s films, what seems to be an important middle ground when it comes to critique is understanding why his works, beyond solely name value, have been so successful. All the answers to that question are just not compatible here.
Ah Girls Go Army is now in theatres islandwide.