“Sandcastle”: Both Sides Now

Aug 13, 2010
*Special to asia!

A conversation with Boo Junfeng and Joshua Tan, the director and male lead, respectively, of the made-in-Singapore feature film.

“Sandcastle” debuted at the 49th International Critic's Week at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2010. The film is a co-production by Zhao Wei Films, Akanga Film Asia and Infinite Frameworks, and has also been picked up for international distribution by Fortissimo films.


Basically, without spoiling the movie – what is “Sandcastle” all about in your opinion?

Boo Junfeng (JF): It’s a coming-of-age story and a family drama. It’s about a boy who, while dealing with his grandmother’s failing memory, discovers that his late father used to be involved in the political activities of the 1950s and 1960s. So he comes of age as he starts to question his sense of identity.


The Hollywood Reporter says the film “tackles a silenced chapter in Singaporean history”. But it’s not exactly “silenced”, right? It’s in the textbooks, Singapore’s National Education. Let’s call it your version of the story, so to speak: is it an opening of that chapter, a re-interpretation, or a new perspective?

JF: First of all, it’s not a new perspective. I had to do a lot of research, based on different accounts that I had read about. And it’s “silenced” in the sense that it’s the version from the Chinese-educated, which has rarely been heard. History is always subjective. In Singapore there is an official narrative, and of course if you dig deeper and read up a little bit more, you will find that there are other accounts.

For me that was very interesting. How I felt I connected with some of those issues was really simply because I felt the passion and the fervour that a lot of those students in the past had. They had their convictions and their beliefs. At 14 and 15, those kids, for what they believed in, would organise rallies and make themselves heard. And I wanted to juxtapose that with the apathy of the people of our generation – you know it’s unthinkable for us to imagine that at 14 or 15, you would do such things. So what drove them to make those radical decisions? It was simply that passion, and that belief in themselves.


So why do you think the 14- or 15-year-olds today are apathetic? Those Chinese students, they had a larger agenda, didn’t they? You could call it “ideology”, I suppose. Does that imply that students today lack some sort of conviction – not necessarily politically – but has idealism gone out of fashion?

JF: Yes and no. First of all, there are several layers to this. One would be that this isn’t unique to Singapore: most industrialized developed countries are going the same way – younger people today just don’t care. But also, at the same time, as we all know, a lot of what we hear, and what we see in our media, is heavily censored. Very often we don’t get the full picture of things, and when we don’t get the full picture of things, we are in a way engineered to be contented; and then, we don’t care. There is nothing we need to care about, isn’t it? So I guess it’s a result of Singapore becoming a developed country, and at the same time also a result of censorship.


(To Joshua Tan) Do you care?

Joshua Tan (JT): About censorship?


I mean in general – would you consider yourself apathetic?

JT: I don’t think “apathetic” is the right word – I think the right word would be “fed up”, or “annoyed”, at this sort of thing.


Annoyed at what?

JT: Well, I mean it’s like Junfeng said – we’ve been fed all this sort of information over the years, which we’ve been led to believe is true; then suddenly when we grow up, we are exposed to this other side of the story that we knew was there, but never really knew about. And now we find out that we just never got to find out more about it.


So where did you find most of the source material for this – oral history?

JF: The National Library – it’s all there.


So it’s not exactly that this history is hidden – it’s all there right?

JF: Let’s not focus so much on the history of it all – I guess you have to understand also that there are various standards to which censorship applies. Film is very often regarded as mass media and there is usually a higher barrier to what you can put and say in a film. Which is why film censorship is always problematic. In academia you can write whatever you want, but if you want to put that research material into a film, it could be a different story altogether. Simply because of the lower barriers of consumption, films are very accessible; especially when it’s telling a story, it’s potentially quite powerful. It can change things, so it’s quite potent in that sense.


So is that what you hope to achieve?

JF: No? (Laughs) If you see the film, you will realise that the media tends to hype these things up – it’s the angle they picked up on, but it’s not what the film is really about.


So would you say that your film is about a period of history but is not trying to re-write it, or are you asking people to question?

JF: Well, the boy in the film is questioning; whether or not people question is another story. I don’t have an agenda with this film, it is simply a story and that was what I wanted to achieve. The back story is anchored in the past and these events that happened in the past. But I think that is what it is, a back story, and I think we all need a back story. We all have our histories.


I’m quite curious though – why the ’56 riots? Singapore has a lot of colourful history that is not really in the public eye, but why ’56? Any particular reason?

JF: Well I don’t consider them riots, more like protests. The significance of that was simply from the images I saw. These were very young, passionate teenagers who had their convictions and ideologies, and were willing to express them. And had no fear in expressing them – and that I think is the big difference with the current generation of youth.


What was the biggest challenge in making “Sandcastle”?

JF: The biggest challenge was in the writing. After making short films, I thought I knew how to write a film. (Laughs) But it was a huge challenge – making short films and telling bite-sized stories is very different from sustaining the attention of the audience for a full-length feature film. So I had to go through a lot. I went through eight drafts – and each draft, especially the first few drafts, between each other, contained very different stories. The characters were different, some were taken out; locations were different; the premise also shifted along the way.

Lim Jin Li is (among other things) a post-graduate student in History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Contact Jin Li