It's Marvellous what Milo can do for Singapore

There was just too much bad gossip about `Kallang Roar' being a shaky first-timer attempt to make a feature film on something involving a cast of thousands. To be straight to the point, the film needs to be watched and supported. To be a little more analytical, 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. It brought him back to Singapore (if I am correct cos I was slightly late for the movie, but am relying on Ding An's short film that I watched). 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 screens, raking up memories of the past. It makes a truly haunting image of the National Stadium (soon to be torn down), especially with its nostalgic 16mm film quality.

I had a chance to read Ding An's credentials during the Kallang Roar press conference in March this year. He's garnered some achievements in scriptwriting, which I was able to appreciate in the storytelling of the movie. There was 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, I actually thought it still managed to pack a huge dollop of heart, wit and surprise. And not forgetting, it made me remember a bunch of spirited inviduals 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 (now why do I find that familiar?). 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 (well, less so in Kallang Roar though). 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. From my memory, I recall Police Academy, Army Daze, `Bao Kao Ban Zhang' (Taiwanese movie in the 80s) and most of all `qi xiao fu' (80s mopvie also called Painted Faces about a Chinese Opera troupe. It feature Sammo Hung as the brutally strict master who whipped his boys into discipline. `Kallang Roar' saw much of the same `no pain no gain' theme throughout. 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 quirkily true-to-the books low-carbo debate between Uncle Choo and one of the soccer board members who did not like to waste food! While I sometimes rolled my eyes in thought of how old-school and outdated the plot was, I am surprised occasionally when the story 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. Apitchay had his job to keep. While, his employer initially supported like the rest of the nation. Fate betrayed him when subsequently, his employer decided to let him go. Dashing Mat Noh had an equally stunning girlfriend. But while he was in camp, he could only lock arms and lips wiht 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. Unmistakably, I saw the ingenious work of Ding An's pen.
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. Btw, the actor is Dollah Salleh'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.


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