Sunday, 27 September 2009

4:30 (Singapore, 2005)

Director: Royston Tan.

Principal cast: Xiao Li Yuan, Young-jun Kim.

Constant social interaction is not just an unavoidable subproduct of the ever-increasing urban co-habitation, it is also very much a prerequisite for our humanity in general and our own place in the surrounding society in particular. Every now and then, we learn about some young child who, not unlike Mowgli having been abandoned by humans after birth, grows up unaware of the expected human behaviour imitating instead the creatures that it has lived with, be it dogs, monkeys or whatever else. As a result, this child not only lacks any human language but often never even learns to walk upright. This aspect doesn’t apply to children only – humans learn throughout their lives, adapting to new places, new technologies, new people. But that is, of course not the end of line. The other main function of any social interaction is just that – social. Humans are also flock creatures who define themselves by their position in relation to the other humans surrounding them and whose mental stability depends on these relations. Loneliness and social exclusion are therefore some of the hardest things to endure for an overwhelming majority of the human kind.

Royston Tan’s second feature 4:30 is a study of loneliness and inability to break what is often just a shell created by circumstance and mounting bitterness towards fellow human beings as well as failure to communicate. The film’s central characters are Xiao Wu, an 11-year-old Chinese latchkey boy left to fend for himself after school while his mother is away on never-ending business trips and Jung, their thirty-something suicidal wreck of a tenant from Korea. The obvious obstacles to any communication between the two, such as the language barrier and the age gap, do not deter the boy from constantly attempting to establish a link to Jung. Just like a warmth-seeking missile, he never seizes to direct his attention towards him – he smells his chopsticks to find out what he had for dinner, he takes a photo of both of them together while Jung is asleep and even secretly cuts one of his pubic hairs – all to be entered into his journal which is entirely dedicated to documenting Xiao Wu’s observations of the tenant. Occasionally, he tries to get under Jung’s skin by putting on his boxer shorts and mimicking his daily routines, including shaving. Thus, his obsession with Jung becomes his own daily routine, a routine which he takes very seriously. Every night at 4.30, woken up by his several alarm clocks, he conducts his nocturnal forays into Jung’s bedroom. While the tenant is lying unconscious in his bed after yet another night of heavy drinking, no doubt aided by the pills which he also abuses, Xiao Wu inspects what little there is to inspect, searching for future entries into his journal.

Jung seems oblivious to Xiao Wu’s childish attempts at communicating with him. His own mind is grief-stricken by the loss of his girlfriend and he chooses to ignore even the boy’s unimpeded attempts at provoking a reaction from him. In a rare moment of actual interaction between the two one night on the stairs, the only thing Jung can think of is to offer the 11-year-old a cigarette while tears are welling up in his eyes. He even tries to say something to Xiao Wu in Korean, only the viewer doesn’t get any translation of what he says, just to emphasise the impenetrable wall between the two.

Leading a lonely existence in an adolescent world disconnected from the rest of the society, Xiao Wu is a typical product of surroundings which have little time to spare for one another. Growing up mostly on his own and feeling alienated in school, his only role models are fictional characters on TV shows whom he knows so well that he simply mimics every word one of them, ironically a disgruntled housewife, has to say. Unwittingly, Jung becomes his other role model being the only other person around. One of the focal scenes of the film has Xiao Wu reading out loud a composition he was supposed to write as part of his homework. The title of the composition is My Hero. In a somewhat shaky voice he presents Jung as his Korean father who has a distinct smell of beer and Johnson’s baby powder but also someone who loves him and cares for him and meets him every day after school. And herein lies the all too powerful distinction between the two – although they are both intrinsically lonely, their loneliness has been arrived at on two different levels which are never to meet. Most of the time, the two protagonists wear white shirts and tops. While in the boy’s case the white colour might symbolise his innocence, Jung’s white shirts resemble mostly a white flag. Xiao Wu is seeking human contact while Jung has given up on it.

Royston Tan’s art direction is impressive and his cinematography has a hypnotic, almost mesmerising effect. Although obviously not to everyone’s taste, 4:30 can be a rather meditating experience with sparse dialogue and long silent scenes where the viewer is given the opportunity to submerge in the significance of the seemingly insignificant. The film is also filled with subtle humour portraying everyday life of an extremely bored pre-adolescent boy. It cannot be recommended to any viewers craving action or wrapped-up explanations since much of the interpretation is left to ourselves but I would say that it’s exactly what gives this film a little extra to chew on after the credits are gone.

Here you can watch the film's trailer