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Film Review #20: 24

Written by Heng Wei Li

Royston Tan’s legacy in the history of Singaporean cinema has been a double-edged sword. His feature debut, 2003’s 15: The Movie, was an immediate sensation in the city-state, its gangster coming-of-age tale cementing itself in the local youth culture with its unabashed, unflinching
rawness and pitch-black comedy. Although I am thoroughly removed from that cultural context, I still cite 15: The Movie as one of the best films that Singapore has to offer through its sheer gratuity and realness.

However, after an explosive debut that should have been the launching point for the career of a transgressive, critical director, none of his later works seemed to have reached that same status that 15: The Movie did, inasmuch as they did not tap into the deeper social subconscious of the Singaporean people. The reasons for this are perhaps wide-ranging, from issues of censorship to lack of marketability, but as someone who has not delved deeper into Tan’s filmography I shall decline from speculation; my theories above came from local cinephile friends who were more familiar with his work than I am.

24 first screened in Singapore at the Singapore International Film Festival. However, censorship issues have been preventing it from attaining a wider commercial release. The movie tells the story of an unnamed sound engineer through 24 static, long takes. The actions within are wide-ranging; at times it is still, with little movement and a clear soundscape to focus on; at other times it is kinetic, as the sound engineer moves and shifts around the frame to do his job. As the film goes on, further revelations are revealed.

With a film of only 24 shots, 24 was definitely quick to grab my attention, as its first scene displayed a prolonged act of explicit sexual activity. Initially I had figured that, with this, Royston was attempting to tap back into his transgressive roots in a perhaps too blunt way, but my worries were quickly assuaged as the true depth of this film revealed itself to me. After that first scene, we immediately move towards a more meditative pace, where the audience is encouraged to soak in the gorgeous visuals, and to let the soundscape accompany it. Thoughts of slow cinema came to mind, and while Royston certainly uses filmmaking principles of that ilk here, he puts his own spin on it, resulting in something truly magnificent.

If I had to condense 24’s ethos into one word, it would be “reflective”. On the surface level, the act of highlighting a sound engineer recording various scenes and actions explores the often-unsung crew in film production, how filmmaking is a collaborative process and that, whilst media attention would mostly gravitate towards the film’s cast and director, the people behind the scenes, such as the sound engineer, are as vital in ensuring a production’s success. Adding onto that, through each of the 24 scenes, Royston sought to explore and reflect on his own career, with locations and sound references to films such as 15: The Movie and 667 (2017), of which he acted as executive producer. Moreover, there are scenes where the sound engineer records the peripheral soundscapes that make up Singapore, from expletive-filled rants by three rowdy men to a simple, homely scene of a mother showering her child. This, to me, made it clear that 24 was a very personal film for Royston, that he was taking on this unorthodox narrative lens and reflecting on how he viewed Singapore, and were that all it had to offer I would have still considered it an intriguing watch.

However, as the film neared its end, it reveals one last ace up his sleeve, unravelling an entirely new narrative layer that had been seamlessly woven into some of the shots prior. It is truly a masterful stroke, one that I sincerely did not see coming, and that left me reeling as I pieced together what I had seen with this new context. I shall not say what that layer is, as I wholly believe that going in blind to that particular part is crucial in experiencing this film, which in turn makes me all the more beleaguered that the film is not widely available anywhere.

24 is a movie whose genius is subtle but omnipresent. Royston created a film that not only expressed an emotional narrative through pinpoint precise editing and sound design, but also acts as an introspection on himself, and that one does not overshadow the other. Fans of Royston’s work should definitely seek this out however they can, as this is truly an exemplary piece of Singaporean arthouse filmmaking. I cannot recommend it enough.

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This review is published as part of *SCAPE’s Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme organised by The Filmic Eye, with support from the Singapore Film Society and Sinema.

About the Author: Wei Li Heng is an avid lover of uncovering and writing about obscure and underseen Asian cinema. He hopes to discover local cinematic gems and share them to a wider audience.

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About the Movie:
Directed by: Royston Tan
Cast: James Choong

Year: 2021
Duration: 1h 17 min
Language: Various

Synopsis: A sound recordist visits 24 places as a spectral observer after his death, going on a journey that transcends time, space, cinema, and living. Boom mic in hand, he brings us to a diverse set of characters and settings, at times darkly humorous yet always suffused with a patient tranquility.

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