15 (2003) A Film by Royston Tan
The first version of 15 I came across was the original short film released in 2002 that clocks in at just under 24 minutes, but what a dizzying and completely breathless 24 minutes! The original version mixed elements of cinema verite (a la the voyeuristic half-documentary style of Larry Clark’s KIDS) with aggressive editing interventions that run the gamut of music video, dream sequence, rapid fire montage, time lapse, Fallen Angels style rectilinear lens shots, and animation, all of which combined together into a ravishingly beautiful and devastating portrait of three boys trying to survive, rebel, and find purpose on the fringes of Singaporean society. It’s a mind blowing short that feels cohesive despite the often jarring stylistic changes and does an amazing job exposing the realities of life in the shadow of Singapore’s rapid economic growth.
While the short gave you just enough time get inside the kids’ world, it also yanked you back out at just the moment you realized how bad things were likely to go for them. The ominous and prescient final song (which also ends the feature length version) asks, “Where can your parents find their son?” laid over a time lapse shot of the boys sitting motionless riding a train. It’s a breathtaking moment, yet it plays differently once you’ve seen the full film, especially since there don’t seem to be any parents around.
See, the major difference between the short and the feature length version, above, is in how much it reveals. The full film forces you (uncomfortable and often squeamish) into the truly dark places that are just below the surface of the short. There are some scenes I literally couldn’t watch (there’s a scene where one of the boys cuts himself with a razor), and the fullness of the pain surrounding their lives permeates even the many moments of levity that we witness. Yes, it sometimes feels like the director is provoking us, but the provocation is done in the same spirit of rebellion against the system that we see in the kids. The full film refuses to let you walk away so easily, and it very successfully expands upon the filmic language the first one laid out, pushing it to its extreme to convey the world this unseen contingent lives in. By the end, the very idea of economic “progress” that Singapore would like to present to the world becomes questionable.
There’s a moment near the end of the film that breaks the wall between the director and his subjects which helps to delineate his connection to them. In voiceover, one of the boys offers him advice:“Royston, don’t follow in my footsteps. You have to learn not to take anything for granted before it’s too late. You will not feel the happiness when it is in your grasp”
The director responds simply, “I understand.” And it’s that understanding, that empathy and connection to his subjects, of their similarities and what he’s learning from them, that allows him to dig up some of the most beautiful images of angst and love and brotherhood that I’ve ever seen on film. These friends only have each other, yet they probably aren’t strong enough to keep each other afloat against all the disadvantages they face. It’s heartbreaking. The short is haunting, but, in some ways, whimsical, almost cute. The full length version is, while more difficult, one that you’ll never forget.