Wednesday, March 20, 2013

15 (2003)

WHO: Royston Tan wrote & directed this, his first feature film.

WHAT: Well known to Singapore moviegoers but practically unknown elsewhere is the fact that the city-state has one of the most restrictive motion picture rating systems around. As one of the producers of 15, Eric Khoo, puts it in an interview with Tilman-Baumgärtel (published in his book Southeast Asian Independent Cinema):
I only wish they would bring down the age for R-rated pictures. I don't think anywhere else in the world, you have to be twenty-one to see a film. You can have sex when you are sixteen, but you cannot watch Borat!
Under such conditions, it should be unsurprising that 15 had to endure a record 27 cuts by Singapore censors before it could be released theatrically in the country it was made, And even then, only those over 21 were allowed to watch it. Combined with a ban on local home video release, it meant that teenagers of the age depicted in the film (the title derives from the age of the adolescents we see on the screen- most of them non-actors recruited from real youth gangs) would have to wait six years to be old enough to legally view the film. 

It's perhaps even less surprising that filmmakers like Tan and Khoo (whose first feature as a director was the punk-rock-inflected Mee Pok Man) would begin their feature filmmaking careers with films that pushed censorship boundaries- the most passionate independent artists are often inclined to press against whatever boundary they feel constraining them, and if, as in Singapore, that boundary is the censor's razor they gravitate to material that gives it resistance. 15 features drugs, violence, and full-frontal male nudity, among other screen taboos. No wonder it became one of the most notorious - and internationally popular - films ever produced on the island nation.

WHERE/WHEN: A CAAMFest presentation at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, tonight only at 7:00.

WHY: CAAMFest is one of the Bay Area's great examples of a film festival loyal to the filmmakers it helps local audiences discover, and to the audiences who appreciate discovering them. Royston Tan's relationship with the festival is a great example. Though the festival hasn't shown every one of his films made over the years, in 2002 (back when it was called the SF International Asian American Film Festival) it screened his short Sons (which is now viewable legally and for free via Youtube), followed up by programming a 35-minute version of 15 the following year. By this time the feature version was in the pipeline and it was screened at the 2004 SFIAAFF; that's where I saw it. I barely remember it so it's clearly time to view it again and the CAAM programmers know it, bringing Tan himself to discuss it and the rest of his career tonight in conversation with Valerie Soe. It's the culmination of a mini-retrospective of Tan's work that also included a festival reprise of his biggest hometown commercial success 881 and the U.S. premiere of his latest film Old Romances. It's great to have the festival bring back its tradition of hosting career surveys of Asian auteurs after a couple-year hiatus.

15 is not the only case of CAAMFest/SFIAAFF screening a short film and later an feature-length remake or sequel version. I'm sure there have been many over the festival history but what comes to mind right now is the 2002 screening of SF Art Institute graduate Michael Shaowanasai's To Be...Or Not To Be?: The Adventures of Iron Pussy III, which foretold a 2004 showing of Shaowanasai's The Adventure of Iron Pussy, co-directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I suppose I think of this example because the short video work that preceded Apichatpong's Mekong Hotel at CAAMFest screenings this past weekend, Jennifer Phang's Advantageous, is getting expanded into a feature-length film later this year. It's good news, because although the short is thought-provoking and emotionally powerful on its own, its science-fiction concept feels at times constrained by its 25-minute frame and deserves a larger canvas. Perhaps we'll see it screened at a future CAAMFest...

HOW: 15 shows via a 35mm print.


  1. Brian: For the second year in a row, I'm missing the whole Asian fest, but am grateful for your link to You Tube where I landed up seeing 4 Tan shorts, besides Sons I watched Ah Kong (A short film about dementia) which hit close to home with its picture of a father and son, and reminded me through its haunting use of a Grace Chang number (I Don't Care Who You Are) how I went crazy about her when I discovered the singer from Tsai Ming Liang's The Hole. Also
    Kaki(a short film about colorectal cancer.) Finally on a less depressing note, my favorite, I Want To Remember, where a drag queen presides over a trippy color karaoke fantasia.Plus a tiny English interview. These whet my appetite to see one of his features someday, and on the big screen.

  2. Glad to be of service with my links, Mr. Chadbourne! I'll have to check those out myself. Have you seen many of the original Grace Chang films that Tsai's musicals hearken back to? I've checked out a couple and liked them quite a bit.

  3. The only other Grace Chang I've seen is a Hong Kong noir, Wild Wild Rose (Sue Jean Halvorsen showed it in her monthly Cinema Snobs series)

  4. Ah the riff on Bizet. I liked that one quite a bit, as well as Mambo Girl. Haven't seen others.

  5. I'll see if I can find Mambo Girl- maybe Le Video, maybe online