'I Not Stupid' : A Post-SGIFF Screening Conversation


The Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) is always an exciting time of the year because it showcases films by upcoming and established filmmakers from the region and beyond. SGIFF holds a special place in my heart because last year I was part of the Youth Jury and Critics programme where I got to watch films and meet filmmakers from Southeast Asia. I grew up in Cambodia and moved to Singapore five years ago, but despite this I wasn't familiar with films from the region.

My learning continued at SGIFF this year, as the Singapore Panorama Programme included the 15th anniversary screenings of two Singaporean films, Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen’s TalkingCock, and Jack Neo’s I Not Stupid.

The Youth Jury programme was special because I not only learned volumes about SEA filmmaking, but also made great friends - one of whom I've roped in to do this article with me. Born and raised in Singapore, Priscilla Liew is a product of the system and society that Jack Neo seeks to discuss in I Not Stupid. Given that I am not from Singapore, Priscilla encouraged (read: forced) me to watch this film, as she strongly believes that everyone should watch a Jack Neo film or two to on their flight to Singapore to get a brief idea about the country. I had only ever heard of Jack Neo in the context of Ah Boys to Men, so this sentiment definitely raised an eyebrow.


Tanvi (left) and Priscilla (right) at the opening film of the 27th SGIFF, Interchange

What follows is a conversation between an international school "third culture" kid and a true blue Singaporean, where we came to surprising realisations about this film and Jack Neo as a filmmaker.

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Tanvi : I wanted to start by asking what it was like for you to watch I Not Stupid again after all of these years?

Priscilla : When I first watched it, I was slightly younger than the protagonists. I hadn’t gone into a stream yet, so the film filled me with dread. Seeing this film as an adult, I realised it digs so much at the society and the government. It also seems like the pressures of primary school are so so small, but back then I couldn’t see past that.

T: Was there really a kind of prejudice against EM3 students?

P: There was. My seniors would definitely say “make sure you don’t go into EM3”. The aunts who didn’t know you would stress that idea on you. Even our own friends would say the same.

T: I guess that explains why when you watched the film as a kid you had more of a sense of dread.

P: Definitely, and he didn't exaggerate the discrimination as much as people thought he would have. The discrimination is very real and very felt. It feels far away, but I realise audiences at the SGIFF screening cried because they knew exactly how it felt. Even now the term EM3 still bites.

What about you, Tanvi? What was the experience of watching this film like for you, did you think the discrimination and pressure was very exaggerated?

T: Not really. Coming from an Indian background, I’ve seen Bollywood films that touch on the same issue about the pressures put on young people to perform well academically. A really popular film is called 3 Idiots, it’s sort of the university version of I Not Stupid. That film, even though it critiques society, completely indulges in the emotional drama. In fact, I went into this screening expecting something similar, only to be pleasantly surprised by how honest it was regarding how we measure intelligence and others’ worth. More than the kids being stupid, the issue was of how adults make the kids feel stupid.

P : Exactly. When I was a kid, I didn’t realise it was so in your face. But now watching it, it’s so confrontational. Which is good - Jack Neo didn’t cop out.

T: The film had these simplistic and superficial plot-lines but, despite that, you’re still feel like ‘yeah, I get it’.


P: During the screening, I was looking at you, and I felt sad that you couldn’t cry along with the whole bunch of Singaporeans.

T: But that could be because I don’t cry in front of people! (both laugh)

P: Well it could be! But I also felt like even though you also grew up in Asia, you wouldn’t feel the exactness of the pressure every Singaporean primary school kid faced because you haven’t been through this system.

T: That’s true, I think the pressures I felt were probably very different.

P: People often say, “Oh Singapore you guys have really good schools” but it’s a study experience that not everyone can survive. I want the world that has been constantly complimenting us on our education system to actually live it.

T: That’s a fair point. Actually, after the screening, Jack Neo did say that things have changed a lot in the last 15 years since the film was made. Is this something you agree with?

P: It feels as if the problem has not been solved. The “adults” make a few superficial changes, slap on a new name and then say “WE MADE CHANGES” on the headlines and hope the problem goes away.

T: Perhaps Neo meant that in terms of filmmaking a lot has changed. You can't talk about the same problem in the same way as he did in I Not Stupid. I think now we’re more used to seeing more clever, subtle satire, rather than something that is so thinly veiled. I Not Stupid was a very deliberate film. There was Terry who was the rich kid, Kok Pin who was kind of middle class and then you have Boon Hock who was poor.

P: Yea he clearly wanted to highlight the different problems of different demographics and he caught the right moment to make this film. At the time, it felt like schools suddenly became very cautious about children not being driven to suicide. The early 2000s was a good time for this film because it was when study-related suicide was starting be seen as a real problem… but I don’t know what happened now… why Ah Boys To Men is…

T: Let's just not even go there

P: But, yes, his films do have something serious to say about society. Oh my gosh I can't believe we're talking about Jack Neo as a social commentary filmmaker. But I'm looking at his filmography now and it makes so much sense!

[Priscilla scrolls through Jack Neo’s Wikipedia page]

T: But I thought the satire was generally the point of his comedy, barring Ah Boys to Men, obviously.

P: But back then I guess I only saw him as a slapstick filmmaker. Oh you see - Money No Enough was about the desperation of being left behind in a Singapore that was moving so quickly, One More Chance was about the struggles and discrimination of post-prison life, even a romcom like I Do I Do was upfront about Singaporeans and their attitudes towards finding love and marriage.


T: Maybe then it’s interesting to consider the implications of I Not Stupid making its reappearance at SGIFF, given that 15 years ago it was a box office hit. We tend to see box office hits very differently from how we see festival films.

P: That’s true. I’m so used to seeing Jack Neo’s films on the couch of my uncle’s home during Chinese New Year. In that scenario, it’s just entertainment and the humour takes away from seeing the social commentary in Neo’s films, although I now realise that’s what he sets out to do - he holds up a reflection of society, albeit a caricature.

T: Do you also think that maybe we don't take him so seriously now because his style of social commentary isn't suited to the current cinematic atmosphere?

P: Because it feels like every film today needs to be dark and serious in order to say something and be heard?

T: Precisely, it feels like there is a need to be serious now. In Neo’s time, comedy helped filmmakers avoid censorship and start necessary conversations. But now that this precedent has been set, filmmakers today can afford to explore serious ways of addressing social issues.

P: At the same time, I also think watching I Not Stupid specifically in a film festival gave us a chance to re-think the way we originally perceived this film.

T: Because you wouldn’t think of I Not Stupid as a film festival film.

P: Which makes me wonder - when we celebrate a film at a film festival, what are we really celebrating?

T: More than ‘celebrating’ a film, I think in this case the festival is serving as a platform to reflect on Singapore cinema, especially given that it screened in the Singapore Panorama programme. Maybe after this screening we might see more interesting uses of comedy in Singapore films about social issues.

P: Had there not been a Singapore Panorama programme, you and I would not have had this chance to watch I Not Stupid and actually think of Jack Neo as more than a slapstick comedian.

***

Priscilla Liew dreams of sushi and working for cinema. She is in love with film and is more than okay to talk about it.

Tanvi Rajvanshi considers film to be one of the few constants in her life. Her head is often up in the air, but curiously, cinema is what draws her back down to earthly realities.

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