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A very long set-up for the next movie, which is funny and engaging enough to pass the time but isn't really as hard-hittingly visceral as it ought to be.
Many years ago, pre-scandal director Jack Neo scored one of his hugest hits with I Not Stupid, a poignant, intelligent movie about the trials and tribulations (mostly trials) of growing up under Singapore's rigorous education system. That film remains my favourite local movie because it so wonderfully encapsulates the Singaporean experience: it's true to life, featuring characters and situations we will all recognise, and it boasts an awful lot of heart and home truths. I was hoping that Neo would make a long-awaited return to form with Ah Boys To Men, following a string of increasingly commercialistic films that have drawn flack for their shameless product placement.
As I Not Stupid did with our schools and students, Ah Boys has in its cross-hairs the National Service (NS) scheme that's been in place in our little island republic for forty-five years now. Joshua Tan plays Ken Chow, the spoiled scion of a wealthy family and self- absorbed, vaguely ungrateful son to a father who just wants him to make the most of his time in NS (Liu Qianyi) and a desperately over- protective, indulgent mother who tries all ways and means to get her son off the proverbial hook (Irene Ang). When he's enlisted against his will, he meets his bunkmates: well-connected buddy 'Lobang' (Wang Weiliang), ang mor pai aspiring officer-to-be Aloysius (Maxi Lim). But Ken just wants to be with his girlfriend, who's due to go overseas to study, and he starts plotting ways and means to get off his enforced sequestration on the training island of Pulau Tekong.
How does Neo's Ah Boys measure up to Michael Chiang's oft-revived play Army Daze? Ah Boys updates the circumstances in which the boys find themselves so there's some talk of camera phones and the occasional use of Skype for not-so-romantic tête-a-têtes. But, strip that all away, and the two stories are broadly similar. Both feature a tongue-in-cheek look at the enlisting process, and then the training period following a group of very different kids who start out as strangers but find that friendships can be bred in the (literal) trenches. Neither film is a fierce political statement decrying mandatory conscription. There is some mocking of the institution, but for the most part, NS is accepted as a fact of life, and celebrated as something that brings a mismatched group of boys together and forces them to become men.
In that sense, Neo's movie doesn't mean to be inoffensive though it may annoy some people with its largely benign, nostalgic depiction of a military stint that they personally didn't enjoy or value. There is a whiff of chest-thumping to this film that could prove annoying after a while: Ken's father is a lonely advocate for NS in the film, begging to be heard above the jokes that constitute the memories and narratives of those who look less charitably on the army but he's presented as the voice of reason, the one who should be respected. It certainly doesn't help matters or impressions that the director received the Ministry of Defence's full cooperation in terms of loans of machinery, equipment, weaponry and access to Tekong although he firmly maintains that Mindef did not invest in the project.
That's not to say Neo's depiction of NS and a possible war-time scenario don't impress on occasion. They do any young man will recognise the days when they were hazed mercilessly by their platoon sergeants, and forced to drop twenty for insolence or disobedience. My favourite parts of the film are probably the nostalgia-tinged flashback segments that are scattered throughout: Ken's uncle reminisces about his time in the army, when hazing was twenty times worse, and those moments serve as funny, surprisingly sweet counterpoints to our more regulated, modern times.
As for the vaunted war-time scenario for which Neo famously scored special permission to shut off parts of the busy business district it's fun enough to watch, and the CGI doesn't look too bad (though it looks rather too shiny and perfect to be quite real). It serves as a framing device for the rest of the film: it's intended to drive home the real stakes our army boys are playing for, that there might well be blood and death and sacrifice in their futures, however impossible that appears in the safety of their bunks and the lack of a military threat against Singapore. The concept works well enough but the execution leaves a little to be desired when it becomes clear that the blood, bombs and destruction were less serious simulation and more silly game-play.
As for what can be expected from the rest of the film: Neo goes into it with his standard bag of film-making tricks. His humour is sly and subversive, but only a little bit so; his characters manage that difficult trick of being both caricatures and real people; and he crafts sneaky emotional hooks into his stories which would cynically be called emotionally manipulative. Ken, Lobang, Aloysius and even Ken's parents come close to being stereotypes we've seen before, but their concerns still come through in a way that's occasionally affecting.
For anyone who's watched a Jack Neo movie or two, there are two possible ways to respond to Ah Boys: it could be a comfortingly familiar experience, as it feels just exactly like the kind of movie he's made many times before. It even hits some of the same far-reaching emotional notes as I Not Stupid, reminding every boy of his own experience with NS (whether it lies behind or ahead of him) while every girl will have known someone who's enlisted. The other way lies frustration: annoyance that Neo is pulling the same old cards out of his sleeve, for a movie that's bloated with padding so that he can slice off another two hours to make the sequel (which follows in February next year).
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