WHAT IT’S ABOUT: To make the film, Royston Tan followed a bunch of 15-year-old gang members in Singapore City. Dealing with issues like school, parental indifference, self-identification, and faction relations, the boys ruffled each other’s feathers, fought, got vulnerable, and considered suicide. And made music. In a precursor to his later achievements in musical filmmaking, Tan filmed the boys rapping and creating miniature music videos. These morsels had the unhinged power that so many polished mixtapes lack: I listen to them to this day.
WHO MADE IT: Royston Tan is an incredible film director, for whom “15” was a raw, but flawless debut, made when he was only 27. Currently, Tan has a bunch of various films behind his sleeve and is an established auteur both back home and abroad. All the characters featured in the film were regular inner city kids with no prior or following experience. In the after-titles to the original version of the film, Tan said he lost track of them after the filming, and that all of them might have been dead. However, when the movie came out in an uncut version in Singapore in late 2018, all but one of the protagonists resurfaced. They turned out to be alive, well, and leading ordinary adult lives—a hope-instilling revelation.
WHY DO WE CARE: I originally stumbled upon “15” in a few lists of recommending watching that concerned queer adolescence, a subject I was researching for my work as a novelist. “15” wasn’t a gay movie unless you really wanted it to be, but it did indeed turn out to be a comprehensive study of male adolescent fragility. The film’s subjects had nothing to do with the image of a progressive, clean and prosperous country that one has of Singapore in their mind. Yes, the tall business centers were all there, in the background, with gum chewing banned. But amid all this progress, teenage boys were still lost, alienated, struggling without love, and feeling abandoned. They were sad, violent, and I was absolutely in love.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: “15” is both essential to understanding the contemporary situation in Singapore, and universally applicable to gaining a broader perspective on the way Millenials were left to their own devices by the previous generations. Besides, too few films are made about the way teenagers can get sucked up into dangerous living. Those that are, usually get narratively enhanced and cleaned up, in the vein of David Simon. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes you have to go to the source and get dirty. “15” was made by Tan coexisting with the kids, not looking at them from above, and treating them like his equals and partners in the creative process. Perhaps this is why “15” remains a constant in my perception of world cinema, and one of my top recommendations for anyone. The vivid, darkly funny and touching scenes of the boys’ adolescence shown in the film are some of the best ever filmed.
Director: Royston Tan
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