'The Olive Depression' by Joshua Lim - Telling it like it is

Junior colleges seem to be the last bastian of idealism for Singaporeans who go through this particular academic route. Debates of a socio-political nature are common in the school canteen among acne-stricken teens in uniforms. Then, we are not entirely sure if its national service or entering the working world, we lose our appetite for questioning and unearthing puzzles in our life unless they are absolutely crucial. I think it is fatigue.

So rightfully, the JC coumpound is where the story begins. 2 boys finish their exams and are about face the next chapter of their lives. One has to enlist first because he did not make the mark for his physical fitness test. The other has a little more time to deal with the transition. So they talk about it. For the length of their conversation, we are often sedentary observers who try to keep pace with the intensity of thier abhorence of national service. Very little moves beyond their talking heads except for some cutaways. Inevitably, it reinforces the esoterism of their banter, making them appear a tad immature. Which makes me question if the filmmaker meant to question national service or is this a set-up for a reversal in the boy's attitude later in the film.

I would deem this film a mind journey. Many of the events that occur to the lead are there to steer his thoughts in certain directions. The treatment leaves much to be worked on because very often instead of letting the events or emotions speak for themselves, they are verbalised to him. The characters speak out the issues for him and perhaps for us to ponder.

First there was that friend who enlisted earlier. In reaction to his sympathetic well-wishes to his friend slights it, explaining that by being dampened by enlistment, he becomes victim to the system. Weeks later, upon meeting up, his friend shares that he chooses to hang out more instead of resting at home in order not to 'lose' any more hours to national service. Then at church, he faces an opposing view from a charismatic group leader. In rehearsing for a play, his mates counsel him (which i found a little odd), but it is the leader's words that had the most resonance. Then back home, he has a doting mother and a more composed father who chooses not to intervene. While I reckoned the parents' views matter marginally to the boy, the mum turned out to be a more significant voice than I thought in his mental sphere. When she catches the boy alone, she treads the fine line between baby-sitting him and flirting with him. So while all that she says is consequential, she does say something important towards the end of the film.

However, the voice that cuts most deeply seems to be that of the female schoolmate who rejected his pursuit. She epitomises a JC prototype, the intellectual, conscientious straight As Arts/Humanities Stream student who could possibly be the object of many boys' affections. She even has that typical JC scrungee on her hair. She didn't have to say very much but the grounds of her rejection of his love thwarts his thoughts about national service in an oblique way. Basically she wants a partner who chases, who protects, and who also probably fits well into the camouflage-green overalls.

Effectively, The Olive Depression seems to work better as a video essay. Characters and events are planted and removed like points deliberated in an essay. They don't weave in and out like how many things in life unfold. The points made do hit it on the nail and it has dissected so many thoughts and feelings so well. But the point of view is adolescent. In other words, to an adult audience, it could be narrative extension of a whine.

However, under a benign drizzle and amidst lush greenery in the camp, the film manages to end on a thoughtful and ambiguous note. There is even a little humour added when the sergeants take the parents on a euphemistic tour of the living quarters. Then quietly at a cookhouse bench, our leading boy ponders over a hundred things, not least of all, what his mother said,' You can think anything you want, just keep it to yourself'.
The Olive Depression is now showing at Sinema Old School.

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