A sullen Singapore teen tries to make sense of his family’s and the city-state’s checkered history in “Sandcastle,” a poignant feature debut from 25-year-old scribe-helmer Boo Junfeng. Belying his young age, the Australian-born rookie serves up a quietly observant exploration of the themes of identity, history and memory, wrapped in the familiar trappings of a melodrama. Visually straightforward pic is more directly accessible than the works of exec producer Eric Khoo and could do niche biz in commercial arenas after a tour of the fest circuit.
Oval-faced tech geek En (nonchalantly brooding musician Joshua Tan) has temporarily moved in with his grandparents when his stern but well-meaning mother (a strong Elena Chia) leaves for some days with her new beau (Samuel Chong, just adequate). Initially weary of his grandparents’ old-fashioned ways (“Dialup is so slow,” he complains), things change when En discovers some pictures of his late father that suggest he was a student leader in the violent 1956 Chinese student protests in Singapore.
His mother denies knowing anything specific about her late husband’s involvement, but before En can ask his grandfather, the old man passes away. Junfeng stages this moment with a painterly eye absent from the rest of the film, as he shows En’s grandmother (the dignified Ng Jing Jing), gravely affected by dementia, cracking an enigmatic smile at her grandson as she sits next to her dead husband.
Pic’s main attraction is its subtle screenplay. An enjoyable multigenerational meller and coming-of-age drama on the surface, Junfeng’s observant script also directly explores what connects people to each other and to the places they come from and live in — fertile ground for a family of Chinese immigrants and a dissident father in Singapore. Influence of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, one of Junfeng’s teachers at the Asian Film Academy, is most clearly felt on this thematic level rather than in anything directly seen onscreen.
En’s neeed to know more about his family and country’s past is clearly part of the adolescent’s transition into adulthood, something that scares his mother, as En is the only direct link she still has to her dead husband.
The changes in the way memories are transmitted over time are suggested by carefully chosen props, with the letters and photographs of the previous generations now replaced by text messages and computer files, though the tyro helmer underlines that old types of transmission can be converted and preserved.
Pic also signals memory and identity in its use of (immigrant) Hokkien for the grandparents’ dialogue, Mandarin for En and his mother’s conversations, and English for the chats between the about-to-be enlisted youth and his friends. En’s blossoming relationship with the hottie next door (dancer Bobbi Chen) is a special case in this respect, as she’s a newly arrived immigrant from China who is able to read letters by En’s father written in classical Chinese, facilitating access to the family’s past while also hinting at its possible future.
The film’s tone is generally down-to-earth, though in the last reel, Junfeng errs on the side of melodrama, with Darren Ng’s score sugarcoating moments that should have been more sober.