'Invisible Children' by Brian Gothong Tan (in Berlin)

The grimy image of a HDB flat lit by spartan flourescent light tubes opens up a landmark film in Singapore's film history - 12 Storeys. The soft billowing of army camouflage uniforms and neighbourhood shop underwears on poles under the afternoon sun sets the scene for what looks like 'revisiting' 12 Storeys. But not quite. On a more neutral and clinical note, 'Invisible Children' by Brian Gothong Tan takes us on slightly distanced and wryly humorous look at a few lives who share something in common - a compelling need to run away.

There is a pair of brother-sister siblings who live in a home of quarelling parents and a despotic mum. The brother is helpless, a little wimpy and a lot lost. The sister has an unspoken magnetism and strength in her and her eyes ooze with determination, if not, adamance. Perhaps one of the more arresting characters in the film.

The other character that stood out (at least the the crowd at the Berlin Asian Hot Shots Film festival) was Lim Poh Huat. After having played so many inconsequential 'extra' roles in films, this was one kind of tailored made for him. With his crisply-ironed national-hygiene-board shirt wrapped around his lanky, sterile-looking frame, he keeps himself pre-occupied with cleaing his house and inspecting other people's houses.
At this point, it is amazing to think how there were still at least 3 other stories that involved about 4 other characters. Naturally, the depth of understanding the characters suffered a little due to this. There is an army officer who upholds the regimental practices in camp but yearns for a freer life overseas. In his own camp, there is a sluggish Private who has trouble keeping up with the rules and time. Despite getting punished by the officer, he feels a certain unspoken attachment to him. An expressway away from the camp, in the heart of CBD , is a fresh lawyer who is struggling hard to keep afloat in her job. Finally, and delightfully, out of nowhere struts in the MerlionAir Girl, a symbol a grace, modernity and supposedly a source of national pride. While she graces a (tongue-in-cheek) MerlionAir TV commercial, her personal life is hollow.

Brian's previous works have been distinguished by their use of iconoclastic visual imagery. And many references are made to national icons and symbols in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Having first established himself as a video artist, the 'installation' look is apparent. In a more subtle way, 'Invisible Children' presents a series of troubled lives in 'boxed-up', clean and slightly-stylised kind of setting. Except for the army bunk, there are plenty of white walls and sterilised settings. Singapore looks like a santitised, inhumane, almost surreal kind of place. Many characters wear white or plain off-white clothing. Either that, or uniforms - there were at least 4 ..... army boys, school students, policemen and an air stewardess. If this is all starting to sound like a visual statement, it probably is. Watching this in Berlin in front of a foreign audience, I began to worry if the Germans would view us as people from another planet.

I was actually watching it for the third time. The more I watch, the more the intellectual and conceptual marks of the film speak to me. Lim Poh Huat's character drew consistent laughter from the German audience. Perhaps it speaks to their disciplined nature. But I felt it made a huge and hilarious statement in the film, be it overseas audience or not. Then there was surrealistic disappearing scene which helped the kids escape for 2 stoogey policemen. However, the scene that takes the cake involves Yeo Yann Yann playing a Chinese teacher who speaks teached healthy 'Asian' values. Lol!

On the downside, the emotional aspects speak less and less. Perhaps, this is because not all the characters were defined adequately. A number of characters did seem like token symbols of a larger group of people. This included the stewardess and the lawyer. But the treatment of the 2 army characters and the mother-children trio gave the film more depth and irony. In fact, the film concluded an ambiguous shot of the mum's reaction to seeing something epiphanic, after grieving over the disappearance of her children. Karen Tan locked in a nuanced and affecting performance. The camera holds on her close up as her funereal expression morphs into one that hopeful, yet a 'make-believe' kind of hopeful. This I felt, was probably the emotional centre-gravity of the film (interesting that it is at the end).

Many of Brian's previous works are actually watchable from YouTube. Check out the following titles : Waking the Fluorescent Lion, Imelda Goes to Singapore, Sublime Monsters and Virtual Children, Across Asia.

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