Sandcastle: Film Review

Boo Jun Feng's debut feature is paced like a plane forever encircling the airport without touching down.

CANNES -- Sandcastle is a sensitive and personal work that makes unforced associations between memory and repression, male rite de passage and historical consciousness, aging and national amnesia, idealism and death. Boo Jun Feng's debut feature about a young man's discovery of his late father's involvement in Singapore's suppressed student movement in 1956 handles this touchy subject with a maturity and gravity rare among his compatriots.

However, Boo also suffers from the habitual reflexes of neophyte arthouse directors, who are prone to aesthetical posturing. So even with a tender and moving denouement, the film is paced like a plane forever encircling the airport without touching down. The film is positioned for fest play.

The soulful looking band boy Joshua Tan becomes more and more engaging as En, an 18-year-old who discovers his late father Boon was a student leader in 1961 from old photos and other records at his grandparents' house. There also is a letter from Boon to En's mother (Elena Chia) which is in traditional Chinese characters, and therefore illegible to En. After En grandfather's sudden death, the increasingly senile grandmother moves in at his mother's insistence.

   

Tensions flare between mother and son -- over her reticence about Boon's activism, her new boyfriend and En's sexual liaisons with Ying (Bobbi Chen), a neighbor from China.

While the grandmother's Alzheimer's is developed as a parallel to and symbol for the fading memory of Boon's generation, the interspersing of patriotic songs and archival photos of 1960s student rallies with the clockwork running of mundane family life further intertwines the personal with the political.

When the contents of Boon's letter finally become clear to En, he takes his grandmother across the Malaysian border to visit Boon's grave in Johor. Boon's allegory about a man in search of a mythical Utopian sea kingdom finally brings the weight of the past to bear on the present with full force in a poetic scene by the sea that merges father with son as En realizes the agonizing choices and sacrifices his parents made. The voiceover of Boon reading his own letter could have been a corny device but his deep-throated enunciation is surprisingly dignified and poignant.

Sandcastle owes much of its evocative visual tone to the refined lighting, which is lushly flickering inside the grandparents shambling old house and iridescent outside. Thematic shots of the beach in various times of day are as dreamy as Turner's oils.

The screenplay is sometimes unfocused and spread out to touch on too many things, and many recurrent artsy shots like low angle shots of stray cats or scenes in the hospital are redundant. The long tracking shots are exacerbated by people who move like pregnant tortoises on a sunny day.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Critics Week
Production companies: Zhao Wei Films, Singapore Film Commission, Fortissimo Films, Peanut Pictures
Cast: Joshua Tan, Elena Chia, Bobbi Chen, Ng Jing Jing, Samuel Chong
Director-screenwriter: Boo Jun Feng
Producers: Fran Borgia, Gary Goh
Executive producers: Eric Khoo, Michael Werner, Boo Jun Feng, Nellecke Dreisen
Director of photography: Sharon Loh
Production designer: James Page
Music: Darren Ng
Editor: Natalie Soh
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 95 minutes

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