'24 Hours of Anger' is a bumpy angry ride, but it's all worth it

Unknown to many Singaporeans due to lack of publicity, '24 Hours of Anger' opened in selected cinemas on Thursday. It is the second feature funded under the Singapore Film Commission's quarter of a S$1m Feature Film Fund Scheme. There was no gala opening party, no fanfare, just loyal Tamil TV fans of TT Dhavamani's works who turned up in moderate numbers, waiting to watch what is really a landmark film - Singapore's first Tamil film (without the hands of arthouse non-Indian filmmakers who might sensationalise or distort what is real about a minority section of society).

The production notes say this deals with a sub-section of the Indian community - Indian gangsters, it seems. I am thinking excessive drinking, violence, murder and err.... gold chains I mean, for the first film that comes from our Indian community here, it is not doing any good in portraying the life of the Indian community here. In fact, the film 'ghetto-ficates' the community. There are one-room flats, gang fights, men clutching bottles of beer and countless acts of stabbing. But the film does not try to sugar-coat anything as well. It tells the story like it is. It does not try to justify or euphemise the acts and choices the characters make. Yet, through TT Dhavmani's seasoned hands, he has created characters that I care about. He has humanised the misunderstood, the mess and the mayhem that 2 hours of so of gripping drama.
There is a lot going on in the film, risking convolution and confusion. But the film starts by getting straight to the point. A mother is on the death row and the family is desperately trying to get her out. She has 2 young kids who have to deal with imminent loss at a tender age. Yet again, this puts another question mark on the hard and fast system of Capital Punishment in Singapore. And the film makes its point clearly as we know here are 2 kids, Prakash and his mentally challenged younger brother Subra, who are going to grow up hating the law. TT Dhavamani has a penchant for pockets of humour punctuating the entire film, even in the gravest moments. One scene that has been etched in my mind deeply is when the convicted mother, dressed in a respectable looking sari was asked to smile for her funeral shot in her cell. While the mother's execution is a great way to set the issues out, this is marred by the choppy editing and the strange juxtaposition of 'corporate-video-like' music against the scenes. It could have done with tighter scripting and a less linear way of establishing the events.

A simple screen title transports us 8 years down the road. This is where the film really gains traction (and no more funny music). Prakash and Subra are all grown up and living under the care of their gang-leader uncle Vinod. Their dad has somehow disappeared from their lives. The grown-up Prakash is a bag of pent-up angst and rebellion. Inevitably, he has assimilated the ways of the tribe his uncle's created. And their biggest nemesis are the cops who are tenacious in their attempts to uncover the gang's drug possessions. A few police raids later, Vinod suspects there is a mole within the gang and wants the gang to disperse. It is then that it becomes apparent Prakash has an agenda of his own, which is detrimental to the rest of the gang members.

While the film's pacing does not make you feel like you are racing to cover a dozen plot points, there are too many characters that come into the spotlight. This is makes it difficult to navigate your senses around because you sometimes lose track of which sub-plot is important. I guess that is where it resembles a multi-part TV serial. However, rather than being accessories to the plot, I did see how in some small way or another, their little episodes contributed to the overall drift. Some examples I would refer to include the female counsellor, the teenage delinquent she was counselling, the narcotics officer. Interestingly, Prakash's dad is inconsequential to the plot, which points to how fragile the whole family really is.

'The street scripts the screen'. This is what the production notes say. I cannot agree further how true this is. There is something immensely authentic about the way the gang members conduct themselves and the actions they take. It makes you want to suspect if these people were gangster-turned-actors or if the director was an Indian 'Ah Beng' himself. In fact, one Chinese analogy I am tempted to draw is '15' by Royston Tan. Royston once self-proclaimed himself to be an 'Ah Beng' and watching it makes one quite tempted to say it could almost be an attempt to document genuinely 'Beng' antics. I can't say if the actors in '24 Hours' drew any inspiration from possible previous gang-hood. I can't always smell what is being over-expressed or 'too-TV' because I do not understand Tamil. But I can say the director has found a pitch-perfect synergy with his actors and is orchestrating several moments to screen magic. Think Jack Neo and his die-hard team.

While I cannot completely avoid the 'ghetto' labelling of this film, it has delightfully avoided the use of the HDB landscape as a visual base. Save for the prologue, the actions take place in an unkempt bungalow and an abandoned house in Johor. Having the ditch in front of the house also heightens the visual drama. Some touches in art direction also give the film a richer texture like the old-fashioned blue van - strange but still effective. However, I would still grouse about the kiddy-print curtains in what was supposed to be a high society private party!

It certainly helped that as I was watching the film, the points at which the largely Indian audience laughed signalled to me when I should take the scene seriously and when I should just be sitting back appreciating the comedy. These distinctions were not always clear. A poor grasp of humour or a sardonic view of life? There were the punchline comments the narcotics officer threw at the delinquents as they were dragged up the police van one by one. The surreal moment with snow drifting outside the window was punctuated with a shot of the gang boys operating a snow-making machine. A heartfelt moment when the counsellor expressed her concern for Prakash was broken abruptly when he gagged her and pulled her away. And the scene with the gang dispersing immediately after some flippant bargaining with the police was helplessly hilarious! On one hand, many scenes had very shoddy editing in which intense moments were punctuated too quickly with new happenings or simply music. But on the other hand which I veer towards more, it probably is the director's own quirky, irreverent and even subversive view of things and way of making a statement.

I like how the developments in the film, in a lyrical way, go back to where it all came from - their once peaceful house in Johor. Prakash, after disposing the drugs in various ways, escapes with his brother Subra back to Johor, in hope that they could reclaim a bit of their blissful past again. In one particular moment, the two brothers found sanctuary in the tranquility of their home kitchen, relishing in simple but knowingly short-lived pleasures like cooking a simple meal, recreating a sense of home that has disappeared with the loss of their parents. It is short-lived because we know Vinod was on his way to find them in Johor.
What followed this was a rather bumpy and long-winded ending. In the finale, Vinod surpr
ises Prakash with his appearance and there is nothing left to do except to fight with their bare hands (and the occasional weapons they could find). This was a bumpy ride because we are constantly hurled back and forth between the past and the present (which is the duel). Everytime we see the two men flex their muscles and prepare to lunge forward, the flashbacks interrupt, unloading bits of information that complete the narrative jigsaw puzzle. Some of these installments could have been given to us much earlier in the story. Inevitably, it makes the film look like it was running out of time to tell its story.

But structural hiccups in storytelling aside, why do I still care about Prakash or Vinod? They smuggle drugs, they bludgeon, they drag other innocent people in to the game (like Prakash's mum). Yet I am saddened by the shot of their battered bodies floating in the ditch. I feel angry about society, about marginalisation, about the lack of social mobility here in Singapore. As mentioned in the film, society would not open doors so this was the only way. Put in the rashness of a few men and you've got a recipe for disaster. For the 'monster-of-a-story' the film is, it has still succeeded in achieving its aim of bringing to our attention a sub-set of society, crying out to our social consciousness and making us see in between what's black and what's white.

'24 Hours of Anger screens in selected Golden Village cinemas now.

Here is the mind-blowing trailer of the film.

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