Film Review: 24 (2021)


24 opens with a flash bang. Two men are furiously making love. Their palpitating bodies match the rhythmic pounding of the soundtrack. A sound recordist with a boom pole steps out of the shadows. As one collapses on the other, he records their heavy breathing as the title card flashes on screen. With this, Royston Tan marks his explosive return to the silver screen.

To think that six years prior, he was making a family oriented musical comedy 3688. Although, this isn’t the first time Tan’s oeuvre has evolved. From 2003 to 2007, Tan went from an irreverent black comedy about teenage gangsters, 15: The Movie, to a fantastical musical comedy about Getai, 881. It’s hard to believe that they were all made by the same auteur if it weren’t for their numerical titles serving as a signature.

While his musical features have found moderate success at the box office, many have been yearning for the return of the enfant terrible behind 15: The Movie and 4:30.

24’s opening is a promising start. Yet the coup de foudre quickly fades away as the film eases into a gentler pace, revealing a meditative story about a sound recordist's soul capturing the aural landscape of 24 locations. The Sound Man in question is James Choong, a long time collaborator of Tan’s, and his muse for the film. These tableaux range from a kopitiam, to an opera troupe performance, to a lotus pond in Thailand.

On first glance, the concept is evocative of Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore GaGa, or Sorayos Prapapan’s Death of the Sound Man. However, Tan charts an intimate narrative that is uniquely his, using sound as a vessel rather than its subject.

By making Choong the centrepiece, Tan illustrates the filters through which we view and interpret our world. The Sound Man listens to the world through a microphone. We watch the Sound Man listening to the world through a screen. This is Tan at his most meta.

“24" draws the lineage between theatre and cinema. Our relationship with entertainment has evolved drastically over the last century, and even more so over the last decade. What was once performed live, like Operas or Getai, can simply be captured on camera and screened at will. The film acknowledges this cultural shift, albeit with some sorrow.

 

At one point, the Sound Man records his own grandmother reminiscing her glory days of being a Chinese opera performer. She paints a colourful picture of the tribulations she underwent just to get on stage, from practising acrobatics with spears to caning. Now she's confined to a hospital bed. The scene ends with her bursting into song, redolent of a swan song.

Perhaps Tan is beginning to see a bit of himself in her. After all, 24 often finds itself taking a trip down memory lane. Joi Chua is seen recording ADR for 3688. Xiao Li Yuan reprises his role as the boy from 4:30. Tan even reunites Shaun Tan, Melvin Chen and Erick Tsang onscreen for the first time since 15: The Movie.

This is further illustrated by a scene of Choong watching 881 in a cinema. The space is eerily empty. The idea of “881” being screened to an audience of one suggests Tan’s own simmering fear over the diminishing legacy of his work. The fact that that one viewer is a wandering spirit further lends to this idea. Coincidentally, the song featured from 881 is “最后一口气”(‘Last Breath’). The choice of setting is most notable.

While the pandemic has accelerated the growth and demand for streaming services, it has exacerbated the decline of live cinemas. The argument for going to the cinema, when you can watch the same movies from the comfort of your own home, is growing ever weaker.

As the mobile screen supersedes the silver screen, filmmakers have had to evolve in order to survive. Filmmakers like Royston Tan have to make their work as accessible as their contemporaries. Case in point, you can now watch 881 and 12 Lotus on Netflix, along with countless other Singaporean features and shows.

Perhaps this is Tan’s attempt to regain some agency before the streaming giants swallow him whole.

At the heart of 24 is an artist with a burning need to capture pieces of the world before being laid to rest. It speaks of Tan’s own attempts to immortalise these ephemeral sights and sounds over the course of his career. The film doesn’t seek to rationalise the character’s actions. Yet, as the Sound Man’s grandmother points out, art is an irrational pursuit. It is a journey driven by compulsion and passion. Royston Tan would know no less.



Review by Charlie Chua

24 had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival and will be screened at the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival.

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