It's Marvellous what Milo can do for Singapore

There was a lot of skepticism about `Kallang Roar' being a first-timer attempt to make a feature film on something involving a cast of thousands. But this film is better than what the cliche in the title suggests. It is a simple conventional story that on one hand makes you think you have seen something like that before but on the other, gives new life to a subject matter as faded as the only photographs that remain of the event - the 1977 Malaysia Cup.

Kueh Lapis was apparently an important factor in determining Singapore's success at the 1977 Malaysia Cup (the other was apparently Milo). Well, Kueh Lapis was Uncle Choo's favourite snack. Uncle Choo, FYI, was the coach who brought the Lions to victory and that brought him back to Singapore. That was just the prelude. Then, the opening credits fade in and out over a series of moving shots of a weathered National Stadium. In the shots, a lonely soccer ball bounces across the screen, raking up memories of the past. It makes a truly haunting image of the old National Stadium, especially with its nostalgic 16mm film quality.

There is nothing very inventive about the direction or cinematography. In fact, the uphill task of recreating the 70s and the soccer crowds narrowed the cinematographic choices. But the gem in the film was undeniably the screenplay and storytelling. While it could be easily faulted as formulaic and old school, it still managed to pack a huge dollop of heart, wit and surprises. And not forgetting, it made me remember a bunch of spirited individuals and not a uniformed group.

Uncle Choo handpicked a group of boys to form a soccer team after being rejected from coaching the national team, currently under the tutelage of a `foreign talent' named Hartley. As boys, there were difficult to distinguish except for the race, because boys are just boys. While, the quirky training methods (like singing Majulah Singapura) draw a few laughs, the deliberate silliness of it and the Milo endorsement made it too much like eating melted cheese.

But the content thickens as the boys grow older because the story gives the audience a meaningful glimpse at the personal life of each of the player. And very surprisingly, the personal moments are short but poignant. We get a first glipmse of their lives when they first hear Uncle Choo's assembly call for the team. Amidst corrugated kampung walls, retro/modish 70s furniture and lots of table-cloth prints on shirts and of course, bell-bottoms, the men react like boys to the call, excited to train on the same field again.

Then, the cliches begin. The first being the scene where Uncle Choo asks them to knock it down. The rest follows like any other `school', `academy', `boot camp' type of show. The coach is legendarily strict. The students are there to learn something difficult but start off as a motley bunch of jokers. They are way behind their coveted goal. They have to learn to survive a regime. At times, they rebel, but the coach straightens them with his iron fist, reminiscent of boot camp films of the late 80s and early 90s like Police Academy and Singapore's own Army Daze. The boys were punished for having a disco night out. On a pouring morning, just when they thought there was no training, Uncle Choo stood at the field alone drenched and awaiting them. And there was the uncannily true-to-the books low-carbo debate between Uncle Choo and one of the soccer board members who did not like to waste food!

Despite the plot bordering on old-school, the story sometimes opens up new angles like how durians can surprise you when you thought you saw the end. What struck a chord was the dilemmas and inner struggles the players faced in balancing both livelihoods and their passion for soccer. Allapitchay had his job to keep. While, his employer initially supported like the rest of the nation, at a later point he asked Allapitchay to go. Dashing Mat Noh had an equally stunning girlfriend. But while he was in camp, he could only lock arms and lips with her through the rusty iron gates. Most poignant of all was Quah Kim Song. Teary-eyed by the bedside of his invalid and amnesic father, he hears a painful truth - his father mistakes him for his brother and urges him not to run after worthless pursuits like Kim Song.

Personally, I was very eager to see the final stadium scenes. There were about 300 of us as extras those 2 nights helping to form the Kallang crowd. It was breath-taking how the final 20,000 odd crowd was `created' to pretty realistic extents even when projected on the big screen. Quite an indomitable post-production feat. Take a look at this picture:

It says everything. But what's more an achievement was the choice of camera angles that accentuated the size of the crowd. I especially adored the scene where the lions enter the field and the camera tilts to reveal people awaiting by the railings of the gallery gate.

The amateur nature in which the game was played escaped my eyes because I am not into soccer. I even laughed along when Uncle Choo deployed the `Crazy Horse' while the soccer pros tell me the way the `horse' was running was wrong and too comical because the actor was plump. By the way, the actor is Dollah Kassim's son! Going by history and the conventional storytelling, it was not difficult to guess the ending. Luckily I was spared too much `Untuk Bangsa Dan Negara, Majulah' for Lim Kay Siu's hysterics were more than enough for me to handle. And to be fair, there was a cute little surprise at the end - it tells us how Fandi Ahmad came into the picture.

Review by Jeremy Sing
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