A film about teens roils Singapore

Drugs, secret societies, abusive parents, pornography, violence, suicide. Welcome to Singapore. As seen, that is, by outcast teens in "15," a local production winning raves at film fests from Venice to Pusan. But what's most surprising about the film is that Singaporeans now have a chance to see it.

The city-state, which has traditionally maintained a tight rein on the film industry, allowed the film to be screened within its borders this fall. "If this had come out five years ago, it would have got a total ban," says Freddie Yeo, general manager of post-production company Infinite Frameworks, which worked on the movie.

But that was before the government decided to "artify" the Lion city a few years ago, partly as a way to distinguish it from mainland China, which is stealing away the attention - and business - of multinational corporations.

That "15" is being shown here at all is in itself interesting. Even more interesting, though, are the fresh insights it offers into Singapore society, not only through the content itself, but in the reactions of Singaporeans to it.

The film chronicles a group of neglected 15-year-olds struggling against loneliness, despair, and low self-esteem in a high-pressure society bent on success. Scorned by family and school after falling behind, they form gangs for comfort ... and the usual gang trouble begins.

Rough around the edges

For all the stir it's causing, the movie is surprisingly low-budget, and at times amateurish. But that, say critics, is appropriate in a sense.

"You wouldn't want '15' to be some totally slick package," says Ben Slater, a Singapore-based film critic and curator with spell#7, a local theater group. "It needs to be raw. Otherwise, it would just aestheticize the pain of its subjects."

And the film's "subjects" are not actors, they're real kids. The director, Royston Tan, encountered one, Shaun, while doing volunteer work two years ago and eventually earned the gang's trust enough to be able to film their lives over a period of many months.

"We told them, 'No acting,' " says Mr. Tan.

A few scenes were staged - a schoolgirl jumps off a building after failing an exam, for instance - but all were based on something real, says Tan. "I just scripted them in different order."

The fact that the film is (mostly) realistic makes it all the more grisly at points. In a drug-trafficking scene, a gang member horrifically forces a prophylactic full of pills down his throat; another scene shows a heavily tattooed youth casually mutilates himself.

The film seems to have had a positive impact on at least one of its "stars." Shaun is now serious about his education. "When Shaun saw the film, it was like a mirror," says Yeo. "It made him change and think about his life."

Scuffing the shine on the city

But is the film an accurate portrayal of life in Singapore? For visitors who have strolled through the prosperous city-state's gleaming shopping malls and subway stations, it's hard to reconcile the film's gritty images with what they've seen. But that, says Tan, is because most foreigners confine themselves to certain areas - and many Singaporeans choose not to see the unpleasant realities.

Long-time volunteers who try to help these troubled teens couldn't agree more. "Some are quite alarmed that there are actually kids like that in Singapore," says Eunice Olsen, a volunteer for the Toa Payoh Girls Home, a last resort for many disadvantaged teenage girls. "It's a problem many are oblivious to."

And a problem that many would like to keep hidden, says Tan.

"Some in the government are complaining that I'm showing Singapore's dirty laundry for all the world to see," he says. "My response is: If you clean the linen, you won't have to see it anymore."

At home, a popular hit

The movie has resonated among Singaporeans, becoming the fastest ever to sell out in the country's film festival.

Watch the film with Singaporeans below age 35, and one response is a bit surprising: frequent outbursts of laughter. "We lived through these times," says Yeo. "We can easily relate to it. We know it as a fact."

But where lighter moments are easily identified with, so are darker ones. Talk to young Singaporeans long enough and one message emerges loud and clear: the high-pressure education system and society's expectations are almost unbearable.

"The education system is very tough," says an official in the police department requesting anonymity. "Even by 10 years old, your future can be decided by the system. This puts enormous pressure on kids."

"Singapore is a very harsh society," agrees Ms. Olsen. "And these kids know the pressure of it - that's something I can find in all of them."

A society in modern flux

The kids are victims, Olsen says, of a historical trend. Since Singapore's independence in 1959, the country's driving focus has been economic progress. That focus has paid huge dividends, but it's also influenced how Singaporeans view one another.

"We've progressed so fast it's amazing," says Olsen. "But the mind-set has become that success is the only important thing. When it comes to civic-mindedness and social progress, we have a lot to learn."

As for Tan himself, despite the fact that the government allowed the film to be shown inside the city-state, he says "15" has offended enough officials that's he's essentially been blacklisted.

"I'm a little hurt, actually," he says. "All I wanted to do was make a film to show the issues we're facing. When you love your country, you don't just show the good things."

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