Royston Tan's 15 is the kind of stream-of-thought character study beloved of American filmmakers like Gus Van Zandt and Larry Clarke, except that since these kids live in the strictly structured city-state of Singapore, famous for its caning of youths for offenses like vandalism and for outlawing chewing gum, the sense of desperation and danger that hangs over the characters that informs every scene is extra complex. The dour, depressed lives of the five main characters would weigh down another film to the point that it would become unwatchable but Tan has a huge array of tricks up his sleeve that makes 15 provocative and engaging.
The film isn't gimmicky, but it is heavily stylized. Tan uses the usual independent filmmaker's bag of tricks, like jump-cuts, characters speaking directly into the camera, fractured timelines, and crazy transitions. But he also fills the screen with text, turns some sequences into video game battles and throws in a dash of animation. These techniques obviously add hipness to the film but they work precisely because they come from the psyches of the subjects. Raised on videogames, porn and drugs, these kids only have pop culture as their point of reference.
There is also a gang element to the film, but it's not clear if these kids are in actual gangs (or Western-style gangs) or if they're just wannabes. One of the best recurring parts of the film shows the kids monotonously singing gang anthems backed by pulsing techno music. These "songs" (which seem to name different gangs each time) contain pompous brag lyrics but most strikingly feature a lot of references to brotherhood and loyalty. Considering the lonely, scrawny kids singing them, these anthems are more like pleas than boasts.
But it's the deep sense of brotherhood felt between different arrangements of the kids that gives the film its resonance. Their bonds go beyond friendship, past love, into a desperate form of dependence. The film includes a lot of homoerotic imagery (the heavily tattooed kids are shirtless almost the entire time) but there is a tenderness to their relationships that goes beyond the sexual. The film is shockingly delicate at times, containing some of the most intimate imagery I've seen in a while: One boy blowing cigarette smoke into another's mouth (filmed in reverse for a dreamy feeling), a boy taping a plastic bag over his drunk friend's mouth to catch his vomit while he sleeps, arms casually draped over naked shoulders. The film has a very tactile sensibility that adds to the intimacy of the characterizations.
And this intimacy goes hand in hand with the sense of danger. The film eroticizes even the squirm-inducing moments, like one boy trying to swallow an enormous condom filled with Ecstasy pills, or a piercing through a cheek. Moments like these help draw the audience into the lives of the characters on a personal level. The film doesn't pull punches and these confused, damaged kids become very real.
Of course, a large part of that is due to the extraordinary performances from all five of the leads. Apparently the actors are actual Singaporean street kids, so their authenticity isn't in question. But just getting the real kids to play themselves wouldn't be enough if they didn't also have the ability to distill their struggles down to something visual. Casts of amateurs are rarely this universally effective. They stare glumly into the camera, droning their lines with near catatonic pacing. But they are also capable of turning on huge smiles in those rare instances when they let their guards down.
Tan knows that his audience is on edge from early on, never really sure what will happen to these lost boys, and he plays with our expectations throughout (a close-up of a boy who looks like his face has taken a severe beating has a completely unexpected explanation.) Even though the film doesn't have a conventional story, Tan still keeps the audience on the edge of its seat by making us care about the characters and dangling them on the edge of disaster. They have no one in their lives except each other and, if we're invested in them at all, despite all their bad behavior, we feel their pain, too.
The widescreen anamorphic video is good, but not great. At times it appears unusually soft even for a 16mm blow-up (I suspect the film was at least partly shot on low-grade video.) But the transfer is mostly clean and it does maintain Tan's interesting use of color. This is a striking looking film that isn't served with the best transfer, but isn't ruined either.
The film is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. The 5.1 is very effective, with the music pumping and the voices clear (even if I didn't understand the Mandarin dialog.) A low budget film really gains a lot of credibility from a good sound mix. Even the 2.0 mix is very good. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
The DVD contains two deleted scenes. The first is more typically melodramatic than most of the rest of the film, so it makes sense that it was cut. The other is an odd scene where two of the boys are talking to a cat and voicing what they figure the cat would say in return. It's kind of hilarious to see this nonplussed cat with their commentary. The disc also includes the American and Singaporean trailers (neither is too interesting) as well as trailers for other releases from Picture This! entertainment.
While short on plot, 15 has loads of atmosphere and character. The excellent cast and bold directing help make it a memorable experience. The film doesn't necessarily judge or romanticize the actions it depicts. Instead, it gives a sense of the plight of these pathetic, desperate characters from the inside. It could have been an exercise in wallowing self-pity and pretension but it's actually engaging and moving.