There’s been no shortage of events commemorating Singapore’s Golden Jubilee – most of us won’t say it, but we are kinda burnt out on SG50, and it’s not even National Day yet. Historical drama/thriller 1965 is probably the most-hyped SG50 film. Set against the backdrop of the lead-up to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, 1965 focuses on police inspector Cheng (Qi), whose young daughter Xiao Yun (Sun Yi En) goes missing. Khatijah (Yusoff), blames Cheng for failing to save her son during a racial riot, and suspicion arises amongst the Chinese that the Malays have kidnapped Xiao Yun in retaliation. Complicating matters, Khatijah’s eldest son Adi (Sezali) is a rookie policeman working under Inspector Cheng. Also caught in the fray is Zhou Jun (Peh), the daughter of a coffeeshop owner and Pakistani reporter Raj (Kasem).
Over the course of 1965’s development, producer and co-director Daniel Yun has had to repeatedly clarify what the film is not: “it’s not a political film”, “it’s not a biopic about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew”, “it’s not a propaganda film” and so on. Let us issue a disclaimer of our own: this opinion on the quality of the film hasn’t got anything to do with politics. 1965 is a bad movie when judged as, well, a movie. Intended as a sweeping historical drama of great import, it instead comes off as heavy-handed, clumsy and dramatically inert. Andrew Ngin, who co-wrote the screenplay with co-directors Randy Ang and Yun, said that the script required more than 60 revisions. It could have done with 60 more. Film is a visual medium, but 1965 is all telling and zero showing, comprising a flagrant overuse of voice-overs, wall-to-wall exposition and platitude-laden speeches. It’s poor storytelling and it’s a slog.
We won’t deny the credit that the film’s production design is due; there is a palpable effort made to capture all the tiny details of life in Singapore circa 1963-1965. Period-accurate sets were constructed at Infinite Studios’ facility in Batam and there are many little nostalgic touches that those who grew up in that era will appreciate, in between copious amounts of F&N product placement. That said, the Singapore we see in 1965 is little more beyond a couple of stretches of shophouses, a police station and a kampung (village) – it’s a corner, not a world, sometimes convincing but never wholly immersive. The sound mix is also off, making most of the dialogue sound like an announcement over a public address system.
The characters are uniformly dull, intended to be a microcosm of Singapore at the time, but always feeling several steps away from being fully fleshed-out. Generally, the acting is fine – Qi’s police protagonist is as bland as wet cardboard but he tries to inject some intensity into his performance. Yusoff’s turn as a grieving, anguished mother is sufficiently compelling. Peh does stick out at times, her character never really coming off as being authentically from that time period. Former opposition politician Nicole Seah, playing the wife of Qi’s character, turns in a more natural performance, which is surprising given that it’s her first acting gig. Kasem is an odd casting choice for Raj, requiring a whole lot more than that beard to come off as a believable Pakistani. While there is some degree of competence, nothing fits together and everything feels incomplete.
Of course, the spotlight is trained directly on veteran stage and screen thespian Lim Kay Tong, who shoulders the responsibility of playing the recently deceased first Prime Minster of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Lim does a dutiful re-enactment of the iconic televised speech Lee gave when Singapore separated from Malaysia, but his screentime is extremely limited and Lee’s role in the plot has no direct bearing on our main characters. Lee passed away on 23 March 2015, and the film includes footage of his funeral procession cut to a sappy power ballad. This may seem like a respectful tribute at first, but this reviewer found it to be opportunistic, tacky and manipulative. Instead of constructing emotional stakes from scratch, the film opts for the easy way out, attempting to get audiences to feel something by presenting them with a recent event that will resonate with most of them. This would have been perfectly acceptable if 1965 were all about Lee Kuan Yew, but as Yun empathically stated, this is not a biopic. The further implication is that the story of every Singaporean is the story of Lee Kuan Yew, and that’s a slippery slope this reviewer does not want to slide down.
Singapore has endured more than its share of tumult as a nation and its history is definitely ripe with heart-rending true stories of courage and tenacity. 1965 ignores all that and serves up a painfully dull, preachy, simplistic and condescending fictional story set against the backdrop of the country’s struggle towards independence. There are elements of the film that may resonate with Singaporeans of a certain vintage, but as a cogent, sweeping historical drama, 1965 is a failure.
Summary: If you enjoy being hit on the head with a social studies textbook for two hours while someone tries to cut open your tear ducts with a scalpel, 1965 is the movie for you.
RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars