A blackly comic view of Singaporean life through the tales of three families in a housing project, “12 Storeys” too often handicaps itself with needlessly slow direction which blunts the humor and a script that doesn’t fully develop the promise of the opening reels. For those familiar with the locale, pic offers many quiet delights in the way it nails its subject with deadly accuracy, but beyond specialized auds the movie may seem repetitive and often overplayed. Trimming would improve its chances for tube sales beyond festival showcases.
Pic has several parallels with helmer Eric Khoo’s first film, “Mee Pok Man,” a bleak romance about a noodle seller’s obsession with a hooker that did the fest rounds two years ago. With its measured pace, recurrent tableaux of sterile apartment blocks and cast of characters who are almost all emotional basket cases, “12 Storeys” paints an equally depressing portrait of life in the Southeast Asian island republic. Film lacks the ghoulish ending of “Mee Pok Man,” and has many more shafts of humor, but overall it’s a downer, despite the satiric tone.
Khoo’s trademark of juxtaposing the official image of Singapore with a darker reality kicks in straightaway as an early-morning radio program proclaims “Singapore! No. 1!” and a man casually commits suicide by leaping from the 12th floor of a housing project, the thump of his body on the concrete hardly breaking the quiet rhythm of the dawn. After this, pic follows a day in the lives of three groups in the same block, their stories cross-cut but separate.
Hardly developed at all, and functioning more as a point of repose between the other two storylines, is the portrait of San-san (Lucilla Teoh), a fat woman who lives alone, is endlessly tongue-whipped by her mother and who throughout the film silently wanders around contemplating a suicide similar to pic’s opening.
More substantial is the tale of goofy, middle-aged Ah Gu (Jack Neo), whose money-obsessed Beijing bride (Chuang Yi-fong) is disgusted with her new life, refuses to have sex with him and only wants to go out and have fun. When she comes home that evening, the pair have a huge row.
Sharpest yarn is that centered on two teens left under their elder bro’s charge when their parents go away for the weekend. Bespectacled, clean-cut Meng (Koh Boon-pin) is like a government ad for the island, ceaselessly lecturing his younger sister, Trixie (Lum May-yee), and baby brother (Ritz Lim) to be better citizens and backing up every argument with official statistics.
The proverbial starts to hit the fan when Meng discovers a condom in his sister’s things and later meets her b.f., who promptly offers to find Meng some hookers to improve his nonexistent sex life. A tempestuous row between Meng and Trixie when she returns late that night sets the scene for a darkly humorous denouement that is a bold statement on the island’s society.
Sections of the pic are genuinely funny, such as Meng grilling Trixie’s laid-back b.f. like some old-fashioned paterfamilias, and Ah Gu’s sitcom-like sequences with his waspish Beijing bride. Where the script disappoints is in not developing the characters beyond their opening frames: Though each represents some aspect of contempo Southeast Asian life — from bored young Gen-Xers to aspiring middle-classers — they remain fixed ciphers from start to finish. Sole respite from cross-cutting between the tales are scenes where Ah Gu goes outside to drink with his pals, who function as a kind of Greek chorus on life in general.
Blowup from Super-16mm is fine, and other tech credits modest but good, considering the hasty 14-day shoot. Khoo worked for nine months on the script but during shooting gave his actors the freedom to improvise.
Koh is superbly cast as the opinionated Meng, and both Lum and Lim exactly catch the bored lassitude of the younger siblings. Dialogue also captures with great accuracy the local habit of freely moving between dialects and languages, as well as the unique flavor of “Singlish” (Singaporean English).
For the record, pic is the first film from Singapore (whose industry effectively collapsed 25 years ago) to be invited into Cannes’ official selection. Chinese title is ambiguous, meaning both “12th Floor” and “12 Storeys.”