15: The Movie

2003 / 90m - Singapore
Drama, Crime
15: The Movie poster

Singapore is a small place, so it's no surprise it doesn't have a very reputable movie industry. When Royston Tan unleashed 15: The Movie upon the World (his first feature film), it certainly brought a bit of extra prestige to the small island city-state. It's not the most comfortable or pandering of films, but it showcased a director with a unique voice and the creative and technical prowess to deliver on that promise. I'd forgotten quite a bit of the film since I last watched it (almost two decades ago), so I was due a little refresher on why I liked this film so much.

screencap of 15: The Movie

Royston Tan was still in his 20s when he directed 15: The Movie, which explains why it's such a high-energy experience. There's a tremendous lack of young directors in the movie industry, so when they do manage to direct a film their efforts tend to stand out. There's a deeper understanding of their often younger subjects, and a willingness to try new things and do everything their own way. It brings a vibrancy to their work that is almost impossible to find elsewhere, but it also makes their films somewhat more divisive compared to the work of more seasoned directors.

15: The Movie deals with five young, disenfranchised kids growing up in Singapore. The city is renowned for being one of the cleanest places in the world, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have a seedy underbelly tucked away. The kids aren't too interested in school, they're drawn to criminal activities and they find comfort in each other's company, as their parents show very little interest in them. It's not the most original setup, there have been plenty of films dealing with similar topics, but thanks to the setting and Tan's dashing presentation, it feels relevant and distinctive.

Five 15-year-old boys struggle to conform to the Singaporean ideal. They live in the suburbs, they ditch classes on a daily basis, and they spend their free time goofing around. The boys get into trouble with some rich students, confront anyone who dares to look at them and they get involved in criminal activities on their quest for a little extra pocket money. But they mostly rely on each other to get themselves through the day, as nobody else is there to look out for them. Underneath that tough exterior are simple youngsters looking for a little love and friendship.

screencap of 15: The Movie

The presentation is a big part of the appeal here. Bold colors, expressive camera work, dynamic editing, and some visual trickery all help to give the film a very young and energetic appearance. It gels with the characters and how they perceive themselves, creating what people would have called a music video-like effect (a term I hate with a vengeance). It's a crucial element that helps us understand the characters though, who are all about being flashy and expressive in an attempt to hide that they are really just craving something deeper and more substantial. The result is a joy for fans of maximalism.

The soundtrack is perfectly in line with the visuals and even adds to the overall impact, even ifthe music itself isn't that great. The soundtrack consists of local dance pop with some crummy rap verses on top, delivered karaoke-style by the characters as if they were singing in a bar. But it fits the characters and the vibe of the film, as it helps establish a more comprehensive and fitting universe for these young kids. It's the perfect example of a soundtrack that helps to ground the experience of a film by being an integral and fundamental part of it.

The performances are pretty damn strong too. These are juveniles and showing off in front of the camera is something that comes naturally to them, but they also aced the more dramatic parts, crucial for balancing out all that posing. It no doubt helped that Tan found some real juvenile delinquents to portray his characters and that he left them plenty of room for improvisation. A lot of what you see on screen was only loosely scripted, which gave these kids the freedom to stick closely to their own personas. A stroke of genius that made it that much easier to sympathize with them.

screencap of 15: The Movie

While you can find remains of something that resembles an actual plot, 15: The Movie is pretty fragmented and works a lot better if you accept it as a piece of (stylized) slice-of-life cinema. The film constantly jumps between five characters who hang around town, going about their business. To be in their presence and to get to know them is the core of the film, whatever these guys are actually up to is less important. That may be a little repetitive for some, especially for those who prefer a stronger narrative basis, but this simply isn't that kind of film.

There is an energy here that you can only get from working with a young crew. Both the director and the actors weren't even in their 30s when they shot this film, which is pretty rare. The vibrant cinematography and the poppy score set the mood for a mix of light-hearted fun and more deep-digging drama, perfectly carried out by the actors. It would mark the start of a valued career for Royston Tan. Getting your hands on the film might be a bit trickier nowadays, but fans of Asian cinema and young voices should definitely make the effort.