The ubiquitous Ah Beng of Singapore continues to be a cultural fascination for the big screen in Singapore cinema, having been the subject of films like Royston Tan's 15, and Kelvin Tong/Jasmine Ng's Eating Air. Here in Singapore, almost every one of us will bump into Mr. Beng at some point in our lives, either in schools, coffeeshops, at nightspots, or even have been, or are still currently one ourselves! This classification and label have been evolving through time, and this version here presented in Boi Kwong's The Days, happen to be an era of mine as well.
Set in the late 80s and early 90s in Ming Fa Secondary School, The Days is loosely based on the director's own experiences, and growing up in the same era, you can't help but to nod in agreement at some of the spot-on observations, and the accurate depiction of generic behaviour of the characters. You know, the gang of boys who form cliques and spot non school approved hairdo, who tuck their shirts out, fold their sleeves and pop their collars, who don't walk but strut their stuff around the school turf. They pick on the weaker boys, and as a group, act in a rather gung-ho, devil may care fashion, firmly believing in strength in numbers. Fights are picked on a whim of accusatory stares, and these boys are fodder for recruitment into underground gangs, where recruiters usually hover around school fences, hooking up and enticing them with values like brotherhood and loyalty, of being "family", or could be bold enough to infiltrate schools to help settle differences.
These boys tend to lead a double life. In schools, they are hopeless as students, but come alive after school - which actually depends on whether they decide to skip lessons altogether - at nearby coffeeshops smoking and drinking beer (this was before more stringent laws were passed to curb selling to minors), or at the arcade plying their skills on the latest Streetfighter game, or at billiard salon to congregate with other members of the same fraternity. On weekends, the discos playing the latest techno hits become their playground, to let their hair down, or to pick up girls, or to pick on someone for fights.
While The Days may seem like it contained a simple story to tell about two brothers, it boasts of a broad documentation of the delinquent life as described which I'm fairly sure still exists in the school courtyards of today, despite being out of an observation post from within. Fusing these elements effortlessly into the narrative, The Days centers on the story of two brothers Zi-Long / Tai-Zi (Justin Chan) and Zi-Hao / Baby (Ivan Lim; yes he's nicknamed that because he's the youngest and the kid-brother), of their relationship which starts to strain because of differing values.
Tai-Zi and his 3 friends call themselves The 4 Heavenly Kings, consisting of Cockroach (Avery Ang), Dog (Derrick R) the part time medium and Tau-Per (Kelvin Tan) the dropout and motorcycle fanatic. Together they form quite a terror group in school, and become ripe for a final initiation (with altar and complete with recitation of vows) into a larger gang, sponsored by their Boss Jeremy Tan (Anthony Levi Kho), who happened to be the live-wire in the movie. All these faux-pas glamour and power-play proved to be enticing to a timid, loner Baby who gets picked on In his first day of school by the resident lower secondary ruffian Rat (Jason Ho, with excellent snarl and one of the most convincing in his role). Baby, whose impressionable mind decides that he too should live it up like his brother in the hip and In-crowd, who in Tai-Zi's earnestness, tells Baby that his band of brothers would be his brothers as well, pivoting the story from that point on.
Hang on, you'd say. Isn't this glamourizing delinquent behaviour, and the authorities here giving a nod towards street corner gangsters? If this was made some 10 years ago, I'd think it would raise more than a few eyebrows. But here's where I thought the compromise was - the characters hardly ever swear, if at all, which makes it a tad quite impossible. They use language and terms which are quite sanitized, and there's a moderating voice represented by Richard Low, whose aged durian seller and ex-gang member provides that constant reminder of not throwing one's youth away for short term pleasures and to make better use of one's time to better oneself. While essentially a mouthpiece of good sense and caution, he becomes a showcase of the detrimental outcome of one who led a life of violence. However, you can count on the veteran actor's gravitas and charisma to lift the one-dimensional role, and doesn't come across as too preachy, and his involvement in many local indie productions, is nothing short of admirable.
In some ways though, there's a distinct lack of authority here with the marked absence of the cops (for a nation like ours that boasts of a safe and secure environment), save for one scene where some plainclothes did a raid, and for a school, there's also the noticeable absence of teachers. Granted, this makes the film border a little on the fantastical, akin to flicks like Volcano High and Crows Zero on turf wars, only without the snazzy effects and superhuman powers. However, there are some eye-popping animations and graphics used to elevate the various characters into legendary, comic book styled status, providing some added colour into the narrative.
In a movie strong in the themes of brotherhood, the women here do play important roles as well, apart from being molls and dolls, and calling the shots at times. Besides sibling rivalry and brotherly love, there's a contrast and parallel to Tai-Zi and Baby in sisters Shan Shan and Valerie (played by real life sisters Adele and Adora Wong), with a built-in love triangle to spice things up a little, to add fuel to the fire. While one sister acts as an inspiration for a change in behaviour for the better, the other becomes the catalyst and chief instigator to entice another's descent into delinquency, of wanting to be, or surpass the "achievements" and reputation of his sibling. It's an interesting parallel, especially when it boils down to hell having known no fury like a woman scorned, and one showing that she has enough tenacity inside her to take charge when the time calls for It. Actress Yeo Yann Yann rounds up the female cast in a supporting appearance as the single mother of the sisters, and in a bar maid role here, that makes it two in a role, given something similar in Yasmin Ahmad's upcoming release Muallaf.
Pacing of the film is remarkably even as it didn't try to cram too much, but felt a little bit rushed toward the end (checking out some film stills did leave an impression that a lot more didn't make it to the final cut). I would suppose some would gripe about the film regarding the fight sequence toward the finale taking place at night, which was a bit of a blur, especially when compounded by shooting it in the dark and had a fair bit of close ups, whereby the characters realistically wearing dark clothing didn't help in allowing to see who's engaging who. Then again, it brought out an aspect of such gangland whack-fest - most of the time, the victims would hardly know who's raining blows at that point in time, and brought out the cyclic nature of such violence perfectly, where victims who survive will round up a bigger gang to take on his attackers when they're left alone and at their most vulnerable. And the cycle continues until there is none-left standing.
For those locally who are dismissing every Singaporean movie that comes out automatically based on biased notions of poor production values, of having tele-movie look and feel, and not being able to entertain, you'd be surprised at how far Singapore cinema has come with The Days now setting the benchmark for a quality and slick indie production with what seems to be on a relatively modest budget. With accessible themes, identifiable characters and excellent cast in what would be the first-outing on the big screen for most, don't go expecting Young and Dangerous, as this movie would ring closer to home in more ways than one, set firmly in our local context, with enough room for a sequel to be made should the box office prove to be an overwhelming success, that while it wrapped up this particular chapter of the story, it still has enough reserves in its tank to go for another round.