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2003, Movie, NR, 90 mins

Review

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While 26-year-old Singaporean filmmaker Royston Tan's debut feature invites an obvious comparison to Larry Clark's underdressed-teens-in-crisis movie KIDS (1995), the association does Tan a serious injustice. While both films describe the downward trajectory of a doomed generation, Clark's tone is that of a hectoring older man wagging his wizened finger and drooling over the nubile wreckage, but Tan connects with his dangerously disaffected youth in a way that only a truly sympathetic contemporary can. As Tan himself states in the opening epigraph, he set out to make a film about the lives of Singapore's out-of-control junior gangsters, but wound up reconnecting to a part of himself that had been long forgotten. Using actual street kids and the visual language of video games, music videos and karaoke screens, Tan explores the lives of five 15-year-old boys who, unable to find a place in Singapore's rigidly stratified educational system, have formed a "brotherhood" on society's margins. Together they play hooky, tattoo their arms and chests, get into brutal knife fights with rival gangs and sometimes kill themselves for lack of anything better to do. Skinny, bespectacled Melvin (Melvin Chen) and his best friend, Vynn (Vynn Soh), practice dancing and rapping for a karaoke dance contest and worry about an upcoming math test; if Melvin doesn't pass, his father is going to kick him out of the house. When he finally does kick him out, Melvin moves into Vynn's bedroom. Meanwhile Shaun (Shaun Tan) has been forced out of Melvin's gang and winds up hanging with Erick (Erick Chun) and Armani (Melvin Lee). After a grisly, RESERVOIR DOGS-styled encounter with a group of ambitious students who tease them for their poor English, the boys go scouting for the perfect location for Armani's suicide. He plans to throw himself from a tall building, but wants to make sure his death is noticed by as many people as possible. As alarming slogans flash across the screen — "Optimism is only for the rich" — the boys pop pills, pierce each other's cheeks, sell drugs and themselves, hack at their arms with box cutters and cling to each other out of pain, fear and, though they'd never admit it, love. It's not a pretty picture, but it's an important one. Like a shot of adrenaline to the heart, Tan's film is an electrifying wake-up call that should serve as a warning not just to Singaporeans, but to any repressive society that attempts to rule its youth through fear and intimidation. The end credits alone, which feature real-life newspaper stories of arson, murder and suicides committed by Singaporean adolescents, should give every parent nightmares. (In Hokkien and Mandarin, with English subtitles.) leave a comment --Ken Fox

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