In Jack Neo’s Long Long Time Ago, the progress of the central family closely follows the progress of Singapore starting from its independence in 1965. The beginning of Neo’s film in this momentous year naturally invites it being compared to the film 1965. In both film’s representation of national issues, the Singapore in Neo’s film feels more current in exemplifying the nation’s pragmatism in problem-solving. The second racial riot in the second half of the film is resolved by civil servants personally dispelling myths about racial conspiracies; a lesson learnt from the first racial riot that is explored by 1965. This is just one of the ways in which Neo portrays national politics differently, even at times exercising subtlety.
The film doesn’t rethread other national issues addressed in Neo’s previous films, most prominently the necessity and benefit of National Service that premised the Ah Boys To Men films. As the youngest brother of the central family is enlisted, Wang Weiliang and Tosh Zhang make brief appearances as soldiers sending the first batch of NS men to camp (Perhaps in this film, they’re Lobang and Sergeant Alex’s ancestors themselves). Neo even gets a bit controversial in portraying LKY’s reputation in the ‘60s. Unlike the reverence paid to him in 1965, the men of the central family have yet to become in awe of him, even going as far to doubt the sincerity of his tears in his iconic speech. There’s a bit of realism here with the ordinary locals feeling distant from the public figure and having no notion of his future legacy. The political figures they eventually connect to is the PAP minister seen repeatedly amidst their community and more significantly, the Indian Inspector Officer who develops from a threatening caricature to a friendly face.
Unlike the rapid progress of Singapore, the interfamilial relations of the main characters makes little progress despite the trials they have undergone. Initially, the focus on Zhao Di distinguishes this film from Neo’s predominantly male-centric team. As Zhao Di exerts effort to prove that she’s not the load of the family with three daughters, she gradually becomes the family’s most effective breadwinner on top of readily being the primary peacemaker. Neo seems to be persuading traditional families to be more appreciative of their female family members, especially when Zhao Di is contrasted against her older brother Ah Kun. Unlike her enterprising sister, Ah Kun is the typical, entitled eldest son who makes more trouble than contributions. We’re obviously supposed to criticize Ah Kun for his troublemaking ways. Yet as his large screen time is disproportionate to his improvement as a person, the film inadvertently reinforces the hierarchy in the family which allows Ah Kun to be given much while he gets away with giving little back. This hierarchy remains largely in place in the family as they remain largely unappreciative of Zhao Di’s achievements since it is the ‘60s, after all.
There is already a sequel prepared to depict more of this bygone age. Clips of Part 2 shown at the end not only promises more fuel for nostalgic trips, but also previews of narrative twists up ahead such as the joining of a Chinese and Indian family through an interracial marriage. The inevitable family melodrama in Neo’s films maybe tedious, but that doesn’t dissipate the warmth that drives this project. As the credits roll accompanied with old black and white photos from the contributors’ personal collection, there is the sense that the people behind Long Long Time Ago are more than collaborators, but rather a collaborative community akin to a family. Review by Joseline Yu