Film Review: Innocents (2012)

Innocents is not an exercise in petty child-whining or a portrait of typical childhood angst. 

The film seems to earnestly ask the question, “Can a child, at such a young age, experience moments of existentialism?” 

11 year-old Syafiqah and Huat are two students who appear to be worlds apart. One is a class monitor, trying to “get by”—a phrase that seems awkward in the context of what people often perceive ordinary primary school children as feeling or experiencing, but fits exactly into the insidious reality that Wong tries to portray. Young Syafiqah finds herself more jaded each day by the frustrating monotony of a regimented school life, and the surmounting questions of why certain social norms or ways of living came to be in place. Wong sets the tone early in the film, opening the scene with medium close-up shots of the young actress at her desk, as she puts on a strikingly mature performance. Her expressions, often serene and calm, belie growing confusion, weariness and a nagging desire for escape. 

Her spiralling disillusionment is corroborated by Huat, a misunderstood rebel, who not so much leads Syafiqah astray as much as he opens her eyes to the narrow-minded hegemony of a cruel adult world, where it is often not the children but adults themselves who initiate petty tantrums and faux hysterics. 

Figures of authority at school are portrayed as droning figureheads, and the principal a faceless, character-less entity of a nanny-state unconvinced about the very values it trumpets. Against superficial and often effete teachers with bizarre Caucasian accents, the relationship between the two children blossoms in several out-of-school escapades—simultaneously and prematurely casting a light on what it means to live on the fringes of society with Huat’s outcasted sister, and under often tragic suggestions of family violence.

The fact that the film appears to have been shot on the grounds of a bleak, derelict, abandoned school—a barren, dystopian universe—makes the jaded, crest-fallen spirits of the hapless child-protagonists all the more pronounced. Near the tracks of the Bukit Timah Railway Station, where virgin forests and Mother Nature unspoilt still lay, is a setting that symbolises their wish to be free—the spirit of their youth is like the lush greenery lying in glorious abandonment, entwined along train tracks. The tracks and canals that extend from frame to frame become metaphorical journeys to nowhere and excellent settings for portraying the spaces and moments at school and its surrounding hideaways in which students are left to their own devices. 

My only gripe comes in the scene in which Syafiqah and Huat are walking along the tracks and the latter beings to open up and share. Wong’s intention, in this scene, seems to be a portrayal of Huat as a closet dreamer who spills verbosity when left to his own discretion and whims. However, the script for Huat reads like words straight out from an Anglophone children’s storybook, and truly doesn't seem like what a small Singaporean boy, however Anglicised, would say: 

“There’s this light that lights up at night, and there’s also this cool sound. And it goes like “choo-choo”. And they’re really fast, it’s impossible to catch…Sometimes I see bones, all dried up in the sun.” 

The sudden absence of Singlish, even though both children have been spouting it, coupled with the grammatically sound and complete sentences that sadly do not really sit well with a Singaporean accent, is awkwardly and perfunctorily delivered by the young boy who plays Huat and makes the scene seem thoroughly contrived.

Anticipating all the tropes of a coming-of-age story celebrating the Innocence of Childhood, it was nonetheless strangely refreshing that I did not find the children’s hand games or echoing peels of laughter as they splashed about the canal water too corny. Perhaps it was the combination of a setting removed from “civilisation” (in terms of the distances in our small island-state), a minimalist aesthetic, some resonance with these childhood games and the cocooning, hypnotic lull of the “tone-poem” that Wong has described her film as being. 

Indeed, a key charm of Innocents lies in its unique piano-synth musical motif with an odd twang in the minor key. The discordant yet strangely soothing tune hauntingly conveys both uncertainty and flight, and plays out poignantly and suggestively in the scene where Huat snatches away Syafiqah’s bag and the latter embarks on a chase. 

In the vein of the themes the film is trying to convey, Innocents is thoughtful and poignant but light—taking its time to unfold, but thankfully, never too long to become a self-indulgent drag. It’s always lovely, too, when the director knows when to pull the brakes. And Innocents finishes exquisitely, with all the hallmarks of well-crafted ambiguity—not inducing nagging dissatisfaction nor a sense of unfulfilment, but rather, final, piercing echoes of an early search for truth.

- Tay Huizhen
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