Review: 1965 (2015)

There was a time when the policemen of Singapore wore shorts. It was not obvious how baring their knees and calves would give them an advantage in catching criminals, while their contemporaries of other professions wore long pants. Modern law-abiding citizens might wonder how those of the time came to be intimidated by enforcers of law whose dress code made them resemble lower secondary school boys. Similarly, we living in modern society may have difficulty putting ourselves in the shoes of those who went through Singapore’s separation from Malaysia; those who as a result of the historical conflict came to be familiar with the sight of said shorts-wearing policemen.

1965 is a historical film marking Singapore’s independence and the pains that the people of regular society have to go through due to the rising racial tensions that would lead up to it. The film is framed as a flashback from the perspective of Adi, a senior Malay man living in modern times. Though this flashback seems to establish Adi as the protagonist, he is largely sidelined amidst the large cast of characters. Early in the film, Adi mentions that his life was changed because of his relationship to a Chinese man who initially did not trust him because he was Malay. Said Chinese man is Inspector Cheng, his superior police officer, whose family drama contributes significantly to the growing distrust between the Malay and Chinese. Even with the above average production values, it feels like this family drama has been played out before, right down to the argument at the family’s dinner table. The alternating focus between Cheng’s family and Adi’s family becomes an inefficient way to build up sympathy for both sides when this attempt at an equity of screen time detracts from fully fleshing out a single perspective i.e. the audience’s perspective that should have reconciled what the Malay and Chinese characters are going through. 

Yet it’s not to say that this foregoing to commit to one perspective results in a total failure to influence the audience’s mindset about the events of 1965. The most significant achievement arising from this creative choice is the drawing of parallels between present and past society through the character of Jun, a girl from Mainland China who has grown up in Singapore. Unlike her father who constantly thinks about returning to their home village in China, Singapore is home to her and she is hence resolved to play a part in making it a safe place to build a home in. Though Jun is meant to represent the ancestors of the modern Chinese community, her speech about how she is different from her father is close to the mindset of immigrants who has come to see themselves as part of a foreign community. Her involvement in the film’s events is yet another timely reminder that Singapore started as a nation of immigrants, hence making it hypocritical to shun the coming immigrants in present society. 

Though the conflicts in this film are based on the clashes between the Malay and Chinese communities, specific racial and cultural differences are largely tangential to the escalation of said conflicts. It is all instead a massive misunderstanding, probably a national conspiracy carried out by street gangsters. The film is unclear about the cause of the racial riots and who is responsible for the deaths that triggered them is left ambiguous. This is irritating, as again, the audience is not given sufficient information to form their own perspective about the politics as depicted in the film. Still, illuminating commentary on race does exist in the minor scene in the interaction between Inspector Cheng and his British superior officer. In their conversation, the latter throws in references to Of Mice and Men and Sherlock Holmes, utterly confusing Cheng who is unfamiliar with the English literary canon. The subtext here is clear: Cheng’s superior should not talk to Cheng as if Cheng is an Englishman just because Cheng is literate in English. 1965 would be a much more illuminating movie if such insight on intercultural communication could be applied to advancing the relationships between the characters. 

Towards the end, the film pays tribute to the accomplishments of late founding father Lee Kuan Yew and intimates the possibility of a film about Singaporean history told through his perspective. His role is well-casted and well-acted, and it is a bit of a waste that the actor is chiefly hired to reenact historical footage. As the film ends with highlighting the successes of Singapore, we move from the past to the future where more work would be done to provide perspective to past politics that inevitably engulf personal lives.

By Joseline Yu 

Catch 1965 in cinemas islandwide now and check out the trailer here. 
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