5th Singapore Short Cuts - Dreams of Youth by Daniel Hui

`Dreams of Youth’, the title sound like a direct translation from a Chinese title, which probably comes in 4 words sounding a little proverbial. But apparently, it is not. But like the usual Chinese film titles, the meaning in this is as layered as the story in the film. Like a dream, the narrative is loose. But its feeling is subtly affecting. A friend of mine who worked on the film told me it was about a boy who was basically walking about here and there. Immediately, my mind conjured easily a handful of local films about people walking here and there! But watching the film proved otherwise, the plot points were fairly discernible. It tells of a boy about to embark on journey into a new chapter of his life and gets a token taste of the twists and turns life would bring.

Our journey with Wei Tian (the character’s name) begins in his bedroom where his desk faces a window with a hallucinatory aura created by the billowing translucent curtains. Nothing really happens in the house. He breaks for lunch and we are introduced to his gentle mum (Daniel’s mother incidentally) who serves the food with so much patience and dedication that the scene oozes with homeliness that you could even feel in a crowd-filled auditorium. Then, a tracked shot across day-to-day conversations at the dining table brings us to an empty corridor fading out into whiteness and its title. A balmy shot of a sleeping Wei Tian woken up by his mother supposedly marks the start of this journey.

We find ourselves next in the school corridor in which a buddy conversation takes place between Wei Tian and his rotund schoolmate. What follows is 2 minutes of de-ja-vu that made me remember the aimless banters about school life and tests! Moving on, hints are dropped about his goals and desires. At the water cooler, he gazes at an athletic female fellow student though nothing more is explained about her relation to the story. Then, at a school test, a relief teacher borrows a calculator and leaves a phone number for him to contact her for it. Perhaps, no need to explain this. Back at home, his mother finds a letter for him from the university in Australia accepting his application. Independent events they are but if you’ve been a student before, you know what they amount to when they over lap and fill your adolescent consciousness.
It is not difficult to imagine the world of Wei Tian’s mind if you have been through Junior College or a high school equivalent. Also, it is evident that the script accurately captures the sense of transience he has about his life in school knowing that a new chapter is beckoning in Australia. However, its execution was loose, causing the storytelling to lose it balance of emphasis occasionally. I felt in certain instances, a singular distant gaze was not good enough to know a person, like the object of his desire, the athlethic girl. And of even greater significance was his close encounter with the relief teacher who came to return the calculator. This scene very much displayed Daniel's sensitivity in treating his subject. Wei Tian shivers with anxiety as the relief teacher coaxes her way into the flat, using the excuse of using the telephone. Like a pro, she starts cosying up to him while he trembles like the lid of the boiling pot. Unfortunately, the hormones churn to a premature ending and the scene cuts to the aftermath in her car, obliterating some potentially important emotional shifts of a `first time’. So having tasted the forbidden fruit, we are not sure what Wei Tian is feeling and how it relates to his anticipation of his journey to Australia.

But adamant in its way of distancing its subjects, Dreams of Youth does deliver moments derived from keen observation of life. In one, his ecstatic conversation with his mother over the phone about his university acceptance is juxtaposed over a lingering shot on his buddy who probably yearns as much to escape. On the day of his departure, a shot is held on the mother’s conversation with her husband about missing Wei Tian when he is gone. Her back is turned to the camera but the stoicism of her voice belies a palpable sense of helplessness. Personally, I would have preferred understanding the characters at an even closer distance than was presented. For all its maturity in understanding life’s choices and dilemmas, characters come and go too easily. Wei Tian was like living in a bubble, never really able to reach out enough to the poeple around him. As for me, I could not decide if I was with him inside looking at the world through its rainbow-tinted film or watching him from outside through grown-up eyes.

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