STOP10 Oct 2017: '12 Storeys' by Eric Khoo - A review 20 years hence

When I attended the 20th anniversary screening of Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys (1997) at the Projector, I was expecting a near full house, and I wasn’t disappointed. This is because one of the best things that recent films such as Apprentice, A Yellow Bird, and Pop Aye, have done is draw the Singapore audience’s attention back to Singapore film. While 12 Storeys may have been something of a cult classic in its time, today it holds a much more important place in SG film history now that more people are realizing SG film goes back far beyond the slapstick army comedy of today.

Khoo is best known for Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys - both of which are considered to have revived the film industry, bringing forth a Singapore New Wave after somewhat staggered film production in the 60s and 70s. 12 Storeys was the first Singaporean film to go to the Cannes Film Festival, creating a pioneer ‘Singaporean’ voice on the International film festival platform. The significance of this moment cannot be understated because prior to this, for the international community, a ‘Singaporean’ cinema was almost nonexistent. In this context, it’s fair to say 12 Storeys started Singapore’s dialogue with the international stage — a dialogue which subsequent filmmakers have evolved and sophisticated to a remarkable degree over the last two decades.

Watching this film in 2017, at the Projector no less (the cinema itself being a ‘revived’ institution), it’s hard to dismiss the profound influence such a film has had in allowing filmmakers of today to speak with a significant degree of honesty about the faults in Singapore’s systems. This film takes arguably Singapore’s most iconic success story, the HDB, as its central motif, only to turn it on its head to reveal the darker anxieties embedded amongst the residents within. Poorly lit, cramped, and dirty, the HDB block of 12 Storeys looks remarkably different from the HDB block of your town council’s racial harmony banner. Moreover, at many instances throughout the film, the whole frame is filled with the HDB block such that it acquires a kind of ominous endlessness.

This film is often described as a "dark comedy", but I would say it leans more on the side of "dark" than "comedy". The story-line that does strike the perfect balance, however, is the one with the teacher who has an unhealthy obsession with his younger sister's "delinquent" sex life. Depicted as a faultlessly upright citizen, who unfailingly does the Singapore workout every morning, it would have been almost too easy to turn this character's obedience and filial piety into a joke.

Instead, in moments where the teacher interacts with his younger siblings, exasperatedly trying to communicate the importance of having a good work ethic, which only falls on deaf ears, it's hard not to sympathise with him. After all, from his perspective, he is only looking out for their well-being. In the scene where the teacher interacts with his sister's "boyfriend", Khoo uses humour to highlight the absurdity of this character's overbearingly protective nature.
When his own obsession with obedience and order drives him to madness by the end of the film, so much so that he ends up getting arrested, the point being made is loud and clear : what is the use of unquestioning obedience if even morally upright “perfect” citizens end up behind bars?

For what the film achieves, there were also a few significant aspects that could have been handled with more sensitivity. For instance, the storyline of the man who brings a wife from China was almost unbearably annoying at many instances. The humor was slapstick, and the intention to make this man look “pitiful” too obvious (I mean, we all know Jack Neo isn’t really buck-toothed).

This storyline looked into the relevant issue of mail-order brides, and it could have benefited well from the same sort of sensitivity as with the teacher’s storyline. Additionally, the suicide in the beginning of the film, with the ghost hanging around, came across as more of an afterthought than a storytelling device. Perhaps the ghost could have linked all the stories together, or perhaps more could have been said about the issue of suicide.

At this point, however, it seems almost unnecessary to pick at the film’s narrative flaws, for what it has achieved on an industrial level by existing is more than enough. In a country rife with censorship, the critical support and appeal of this film ensured that filmmakers in the future can continue to probe and question institutional systems, something which any filmmaker should be free to do if both the cultural and social fabric of a society is to mature. Watching this film today was a useful glimpse of where SG cinema has come from, and where it ought to go next.

12 Storeys is available for purchase or rent on iTunes Singapore. This the highly commendable work of A Little Seed, a local film aggregator started by local filmmaker and founder of Mocha Chai Laboratories Chai Yee Wei. Some of the other film titles on the iTunes list include Anthony Chen’s Ilo IloBoo Junfeng's Sandcastle, Ken Kwek's Unlucky Plaza and Royston Tan’s 7 Letters Anthology.

Review by Tanvi Rajvanshi

For the full list of October 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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