By Yufeng K.
Let me start off with a disclaimer: Innocents is hardly perfect.
The film explores the budding of an unlikely friendship between Syafiqah and Huat, two 11-year-olds who appear to be diametrically opposed.
Syafiqah is Malay and is the straight-laced transfer student, who becomes the monitor of her class and excels in her schoolwork. Her parents are separated and her Father never picks up her calls. She is left to the care of her grandmother who seems more interested in her own image as a caretaker than Syafiqah’s emotional well-being (“Is she happy in school?” Syafiqah’s science teacher asks, and stone-faced silence is the grandmother’s reply).
Huat is Chinese and the recalcitrant delinquent, who is frequently late for class and displays insolence to the teachers in school. His father is an abusive alcoholic who leaves Huat and his mentally disabled sister to their own devices. Huat feels responsible for his sister, which we find out, is one reason for him always being late for math class.
But they both struggle with loneliness and abandonment, finding solace in each other and in their “special place” – a storm drain deep in the jungle, bordered by railway tracks.
By and large a mood piece, director Wong Chen-Hsi’s feature film debut is at times frustrating, even bewildering. At 88 minutes, the film can become plodding, especially with Wong’s conscious use of repetitive shots.
Also vexing is the film’s vague and inconsistent setting. Set in 1980s Singapore, a number of jarring anachronisms appear from time to time and some of the attempts at recreating that time period feel forced.
But Innocents’ biggest failing is its script.
While Nameera Ashley and Cai Chengyue are convincing and endearing as Syafiqah and Huat, their dialogue is contrived. Both characters speak with maturity far beyond their age and a complete lack of Singlish or colloquialism severely diminishes the film’s carefully built authenticity.
The film excels however in its emotional build-up. We see Syafiqah’s increasing jadedness towards school and authority and her anger at what she perceives as injustice towards Huat, which is mirrored by the brewing storm and her leaking roof.
The eventual torrent erupts as the film reaches its climax. And when the monsoon subsides and the realisation that Huat missing in its aftermath, we also see a symbolic shot of the school littered with debris.
The film also makes it easy for the audience to identify with the children. The adults in the film are cold and often irresponsible, both at home and in school – the principal is a faceless mouthpiece whose role is to dish out punishments to those who fall out of line, while the teachers are ardent fans of rote learning and only want to get their jobs done.
But the reason Innocents feels unfulfilling is because it vacillates between this sort of deftness in its story-telling to outright boorishness.
The discovery of a dead body in the longkang is a strong symbol for the significance that Huat, and later Syafiqah, place on their secret hideout, which cannot afford to be blemished by an adult world that has already played a destructive, repressive role in their lives. But this plot device is given little screen-time to develop and is quickly forgotten.
It is also hard to forgive the ridiculous scene where Huat buys train tickets for his sister and Syafiqah to escape to Kelantan (find me someone who would nonchalantly sell train tickets to three unaccompanied children).
In addition, Huat’s lie about his uncle’s workshop feels like another potentially dramatic plot device that is under-utilised, mentioned only in passing as Syafiqah’s science teacher tries to explain Huat’s likely demise.
However, Innocents still makes for a wonderful viewing experience. From the opening shot, Joseph White’s gorgeous and atmospheric cinematography is gripping. Huat and Syafiqah’s jungle sanctuary is lush compared to the bleak concrete of their classroom and homes, adding an extra dimension to the film, as do the subtle shifts in colour tone.
The decision to shoot hand-held can be distracting in some scenes.
The film boasts an excellent soundtrack — an effective mix of piano pieces and natural sound — that heightens the atmosphere and tension throughout most of the film.
Innocents stops woefully short of its full potential. But despite its shortcomings, the film is successful in presenting a coming-of-age story that is delightful and devastating.
*This review was written after a screening at The Arts House on 29 Sept.