The Outsiders by Madhav Mathur

If I had to sum up my entire experience watching The Outsiders in one word, it will be ‘strange’.

Not so much in Terrence Malick’s experimental Palme d’Or clinching Tree of Life manner with its surrealist existential form that through the seemingly random introduction of dinosaurs and space elements leads to retrospective questions in hindside of the web of life, destiny and fate.

But strange in such a disjointed fashion that perhaps prompted at least 10 people among the sold-out Sinema Old School audience to leave midway during the screening. I will not mince my words here – this film at 112 minutes long and 16-20 months in the making was really quite painful to sit through, disregarding the various jump cuts, static shots, and low production feel, by which the director obviously intended to emulate a fly-in-the-wall observer stylistic technique.

The film has good intent, excellent in fact, in setting out to document the lives of marginalised groups of people in Singapore. The country is truly in dire need of such films that somehow little by little cast these groups of people in the mainstream limelight, but stopping short of shoving their existence down the throats of the general populace. Pleasure Factory somewhat achieved that, with its convoluted web of seedy Geylang prostitution and gay relationships. So has Royston Tan’s 15, which highlighted gangsterism, or Eric Khoo’s feature films that reflect proletariat Singaporean society.
And yes, the film did clinch an award of merit at the California Indie Fest in August 2011, so perhaps it is simply just not my kind of film.
The Outsiders, directed by Madhav Mathur, is the second film under his production label Bad Alliteration. In this flick he highlights the livelihoods of a Indian construction worker from Tamil Nadu, an Indian gay man, a Russian exchange student, an elderly reclusive Indian Muslim widower and a young Chinese non-conformist. All their stories run in parallel threads to one another, with minimal intersection and nary any interaction among the various groups.

Yet this perhaps only serves to exemplify a seeming disconnect with how Singapore has evolved today. Do the above groups of personality types really reflect marginalisation in Singapore? An uprising of alternative voices in Singapore today does not make the young Singaporean Chinese non-conformist any more marginalised than the China migrant whose habitual peculiarities – heck, make that his sole presence in itself – are frowned upon with disdain by the layperson and whose sheer existence is blamed for fueling a local population boom and overcrowding trains.

Further, how does the story arc of the dreamy Russian exchange misfit so caught up in her own romanticism ideals fit in? I have loads of exchange friends who have blended in seamlessly. Or the elderly reclusive widower, at that? These characters, from what has been told in the movie, simply have been overwhelmed in their own self-pity over their predicament that they are unable to move on with life and live it to the fullest.

Boy did I wish they seek therapy while watching the film. It really bugs me how groups of outliers can be used to generalise and reflect groups of people. I wouldn’t be so uncomfortable with the storyline if the choice of personality types are victims of external circumstances outside their control rather than victims of their own internal lack of self will. The former are truly a community of their own that deserves to be highlighted, while the latter mere pockets of individuals.

That said I did enjoy the story arc of the Indian gay man and the construction worker, though for the former the path to self-discovery was utterly bizarre (meeting a French photographer in a gay sauna, really?) and for the latter he is perhaps too naïve and trusting.

And sometimes you wonder whether they’re really bringing it onto themselves by living out their stereotypes.

Written by Walter Sim

Trailer below:

Do see also:
• Bad Alliteration Films:
• The Outsiders (2011) Facebook Page:

(Movie stills from Bad Alliteration Films)
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