Possibly the quintessential ‘90s movie from Singapore that balances its arthouse preoccupations with strategic mainstream appeal in what remains to be Eric Khoo’s defining work.
Dir. Eric Khoo
1997 | Singapore | Drama/Comedy | 100 mins | Various languages
PG13 (passed clean) for some sexual references and coarse language
Cast: Jack Neo, Koh Boon Pin, Quan Yi Fong, Lum May Yee, Lucilla Teoh
Plot: Goofy middle-aged Ah Gu is not happy with his money-obsessed bride Lily. At the same block, young Meng is left to look after his siblings, sister Trixie and younger brother Tee.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
Source: Zhao Wei Films
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on DVD)
12 Storeys could be Eric Khoo’s defining work, not least because it is possibly the quintessential ‘90s Singapore movie. Fresh from the critical success of Mee Pok Man (1995), his bold if uneven feature debut, Khoo’s sophomore effort brings the lives and stories of disparate characters together in a more entertaining work set in a government housing estate. (Khoo’s third feature, Be with Me (2005), would also employ a multi-linear structure.)
In the prologue, there is already a suicide from a block—the rumour is that the deceased jumped from the 12th storey, leading to the usual prognosis of lottery-winning numbers by old uncles at the nearby kopitiam (coffee shop).
In a warped-Wings of Desire way, the young suicide victim becomes a roaming ‘spirit of the estate’, making his way to different flats co-inhabited by various people. His presence is benign, and supposedly through his eyes, we begin to take interest in several key characters.
Khoo’s strategy to hook us in this way is intriguing, because the film is always situated in the third person, or sometimes the periphery, even as the drama and comedy take center stage.
The first film from Singapore to be invited into Cannes’ official selection.
Jack Neo, in his first acting gig for a local movie (and what an outstanding performance to boot), is utterly unrecognisable as Ah Gu, an unambitious Singaporean man with a materialistic Mainland Chinese wife (Quan Yi Fong) who wants to leave him.
Another prominent set of characters comes in the form of Koh Boon Pin, who plays Meng, the mature older brother of two siblings under his authoritarian care—one a much younger brother and the other his teenage sister (Lum May Yee) who is starting to date and exploring her sexuality. Some of the most dramatic and hilariously cheesy scenes can be found here.
Last but not least, we become privy to a shy and lonely woman called San San (Lucilla Teoh), who was adopted by a verbally-abusive mother decades ago.
Khoo fleshes the stories of these characters quite fruitfully, and even if they share the same apartment block, they don’t meet. 12 Storeys retains some measure of arthouse elements, particularly letting some shots linger on longer than usual.
Khoo also treats the housing estate e.g. the playground, the corridor, the flat etc. as a subliminal space, not just as a conduit for the film’s benign spirit to exist, but also for the commingling of the social (the disenfranchised), psychological (fears and desires) and political (control and manipulation) to flourish in a, well, uniquely Singaporean way.