Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In short: 23:59 (2011)

1983. A group of young soldiers are on the last leg of their national service, spending the last few weeks in a training camp on a jungle island.

There, strange things begin to happen. At first, it's only Tan (Tedd Chan), the group's supposed coward, who is affected by visions of two ghosts - a child, and woman with a hole where her face should be - which doesn't exactly strengthen his position among his peers. Tan's only actual friend among the group is his childhood friend Jeremy (Henley Hii), but even Jeremy seems to be at the end of his tether with Tan's often rather hysterical behaviour, especially since Jeremy is your typical horror movie sceptic denying his own past connections to the supernatural. Jeremy, you see, has the Third Eye and can let ghosts speak through him, but he is convinced that power is something his father invented to milk fools for their money.

But even Jeremy will change his tune when Tan dies on a cross-jungle march under mysterious circumstances, and the rest of their platoon begins to be plagued by ghostly appearances, dreams and even possession.

I might be wrong about it from my far-off perch in Europe, but it seems as if there's by now coming a minor but steady trickle of decent horror movies from Singapore. Enough of them at least, to awaken the hope in me there'll come one exceptional horror film from there that will start a whole wave of movies trying to copy it, bringing with it a load of crap but also quite a few pearls, as it always happens under circumstances like this.

Gilbert Chan's 23:59 is not that film, but it is a cheap, short and competent of little horror movie that knows what kind of story it wants to tell and goes about that business in a straightforward, mostly effective manner without using too many cheap tricks, losing itself in comic relief, or swooping in with a third act plot twist.

If that sounds like a bit of a conservative approach to horror to you, I won't disagree there, but it also seem to be an effective way to make a movie that works pretty well in its own, unassuming way. It's not a horror film out to change the world or scare your pants off, it is however one quite decent at building up the proper mood of a place and time where the barriers between the living and the dead have grown thin. Plus, it's so unassuming, not even the "teach the unbeliever the truth about the spirit world" parts of the plot manage to annoy me. While the film is probably out trying to convince its audience of its philosophical outlook, it's fitting its plot and characters to that outlook instead of imposing it on them.

As somebody not from Singapore, I found myself also quite fascinated by the cultural and temporal background the film shows in - again - a very unassuming yet quietly effective manner, the mixing between more traditional Asian concepts and mores and Western influences, as well as the slightly different outlook Chan has on these things than what I'm used to from other South-East Asian films.

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