Review: Ah Boys to Men

It might have become fashionable among some circles to flippantly dismiss Jack Neo's films as overly sentimental pseudo-satires, but let's get one thing straight: he is a talented comedian and, like him or not, he matters. His best works, I Not Stupid and Money No Enough (written and produced but not directed by him), were so much more than mere laugh-out-loud entertainment; they tapped deeply into the national conscience, confronted us with the hypocrisies and shortcomings of the Singaporean system, and sparked a wave of social discourse. Of course, while it worked for those two films, Neo's penchant for didacticism may be what drove many of his other films to misfire, with such an impulse often causing him to pile on the melodrama and contrive spectacular character changes over the course of one overwrought scene. Yet, manipulative or not - and they mostly are - Neo's films have a canny resonance with Singaporeans.

Ah Boys to Men is a textbook study of Neo's tics, showcasing all his strengths and weaknesses. Like most of his other films, Ah Boys to Men holds a very insular appeal; its humour is silly but intense and - this being the biggest limiting factor - essentially self-contained, its context so firmly anchored within Singaporean culture that the jokes may be impenetrable to people unfamiliar with our way of life. Here the humour is even more constrained. It is so rooted within the local army context that I believe people who have not been through national service - the compulsory draft where all Singaporean males have go undertake as part of their rite-of-passage to adulthood - will be left bewildered as to what is actually funny about the jokes. (In the screening I attended, many of the young men laughed heartily while others near me kept a straight face throughout).

Two prevailing questions raised in National Education and Social Studies classes  - What will war be like in Singapore and how do we defend ourselves?- are tackled headlong in the opening scenes, as Neo concocts an assault from an unknown country on our little island. Enemy planes launch missiles at public housing, roads, and the neighbourhood hawker centre. Explosions go off everywhere. People get savagely pelted by bullets.

The death and devastation plays out in slo-mo, and even more ridiculously, with a power-ballad version of the local army song "Training To Be Solders" swelling on the soundtrack. These overwrought devices are merely a play for your tears, which is entirely silly because there is nary a stake here: the people dying aren't characters you have been introduced to yet, let alone care about, and since this is a Jack Neo film, we are already privy to how the war is ultimately superfluous, that a happy ending is in sight (i.e. our armed forces wins the day).

What enlivens the opening segment more than the ludicrous music is the humour, and this is where Neo is clearly in his element. During this 15 minute sequence, I marvelled at how Singaporean his jokes are and how Neo really does have a handle on getting Singaporeans to loosen up and laugh at ourselves. Neo realizes the the quirks and peculiarities of Singaporean life and highlights them in an exaggerated, deliberately silly manner that is both hilarious and heartfelt. And I think the movie is strongest when he traffics in this humour. These scenes feel honest, organic and breezy.

It's unfortunate,then, that these moments of humour were intermittent and brief and ultimately drowned out by the histrionics; the sequence oscillated wildly between full-blown melodrama and barbed satire, and it did not feel successful as either.

When we finish the preliminaries, things pick up, and we see Ken Chow (Joshua Tan), a soon-to-be enlistee, arguing with his girlfriend Amy (Qiu Qiu), who is going overseas to study. He kicks up a fuss in the middle of a street and knocks over a dustbin in a fit of rage. We know right from the get-go that this is an impulsive, rash, self-entitled brat.

Not wanting to be apart from Amy, he soon conspires with his over-protective and patronizing mother (a wonderfully hammy Irene Ang) to get himself deferred so he can spend more time with Amy, and this is when the movie picks up. We witness both of them cooking up weird excuses and pulling every string they have, but ultimately Ken gets enlisted, much to his dismay.

What ensues is a whole slew of typical but hilarious antics, and when Neo isn't straining so hard for emotional impact or heavy-handed moralizing the movie actually feels buoyant and enjoyable. Many jokes in the film come from the outlandish behaviour of the exaggerated personalities - you have the enthusiastic officer-wannabe, a street-smart guy called "lobang" (a Malay word that means "hole", but used colloquially it means "good deal"), the spoilt brat, and then u have the minor characters who are there to add variety to the proceedings, like the China immigrant and the effeminate, flamboyant recruit - and as such, some people may take issue with the stereotypes portrayed in the film.

I can understand these concerns, but demanding subtlety or complex characters from Jack Neo is like asking a cow to fly. He just doesn't do that, and most of the characters in his movies are but caricatures. Yet, I feel that in the context of Ah Boys to Men, Neo's relentless use of stereotypes morphs into strengths instead of handicapping the film. The unabashed use of stereotypes is true to the way recruits deliberately perform an identity in order to find a space within the army - it is a means to stand out in a unique manner - which is why you get the joker, the slacker, the fired-up gung-ho kid, etc.  In Ah Boys to Men, where a bunch of conflicting oddball personalities learn to tolerate and eventually even grow to love one another through the course of their training, Ken's platoon is basically a microcosm for society. Neo's tribute to the army (some may even call it propaganda, we'll get to that in a bit) is basically a love letter to his country, an unfettered embrace of Singapore's diversity.

But it is the "why" of it all where the the central problem of the film lies: Why should these young men give up two years of their life to serve the nation? Why should we love this country? Why does Neo love Singapore so much and what does he see in it? And this is where the film remains curiously silent, able only to serve up convenient platitudes in order to placate curious audiences. It leads us to some over-familiar - almost hackneyed - truths: This is where our family and friends are. This is where we grew up in. We should defend and protect it.

I am not going to belabor the point that the reasons we love our country - if you do, that is - are different for everyone. But there must always be something more than the mere "we love our family" shit offered; otherwise, emigration would be on the cards for most Singaporeans. And while Neo occasionally explores facets of uniquely Singaporean life in Ah Boys to Men, those moments are just too rare. This lack of pursuit of truth and an absence of intellectual curiosity about our national identity is why some people will regard this as a propaganda film; its core message boils down to something like, "we love our family and we need to grow up so must serve NS lor!" Which, if you actually think about it, is bad logic at best, absolute bullshit at worst.

Worse still is the spectacularly contrived final scene. As with many of Neo's misfires, he conjures up some BIG RANDOM INCIDENT that causes the main character to change radically over one scene, effectively forcing Ken to forgo his cynicism, grow up and take national service seriously, further equating maturity with the abandonment of authentic ideological investigation.

The film also evokes satiric elements without ever committing to them. In one scene towards the end, we witness a montage where an officer gets reprimanded by his superior, then his superior gets reprimanded by his own, and we go up an entire chain of command till we find the minister getting berated by a parent. It's a funny scene, all right, but besides eliciting a few laughs Neo doesn't go on to further explore the implications of such a scenario. Early on in the opening segment, Neo also highlights the self-absorption and entitlement of Singaporeans in a somewhat exaggerated scene: when a missile lands nearby a hawker centre, all the locals there did was to talk about how shit's going down and how people are going to complain, unaware of the gravity of the situation. While Neo acknowledges these Singaporean problems, he does little but milk them for laughs instead of exploring them further.

Here is where people will raise up their hands in protest. It's just entertainment, for God's sake! Loosen up! It would have been a lot more respectable if the film had stuck to just being mere entertainment. Michael Chiang's Army Daze was pure entertainment, but it was witty and heartfelt, and genuinely resonant. It had no pretensions to deeper meaning and kept itself free from  heavy-handed moralizing and muddled philosophizing.  It was just balls-out hilarious.

Ah Boys to Men, is hilarious at parts too, which is no surprise because Jack Neo has a funny bone in him and knows how to construct interesting scenarios. But Neo also bites off more than he can chew. He throws in so many disparate elements and aspires to do so many things that the film feels tonally hysterical and thematically incoherent. Ah Boys to Men has neither the emotional delicacy to be a coming-of-age drama nor the intellectual heft to be a treatise on the importance of country, or even the sustained madcap energy to be a brilliant comedy; in the end, it is purely hypocritical.

Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy myself. I did. I laughed a lot, and was thoroughly entertained during stretches in the middle. It made me recall fond memories of my own army experience. But I was hoping for so much more, and the fact that Neo showed sparks of genuine brilliance in this film only made its ultimate failure all the more more disappointing.

(Edit: Money No Enough was written and produced by Neo but directed by Tay Teck Lock. Jack Neo did wear all 3 hats for Money No Enough 2, however.)
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