Director: Gilbert Chan
Cast: Mark Lee, Henley Hll, Josh Lai, Tedd Chan, Lawrence Koh, Tommy Kuan
RunTime: 1 hr 18 mins
Released By: GV, InnoForm Media & Clover Films
Rating: PG13 (Horror Theme & Disturbing Scenes)
Opening Day: 3 November 2011
Synopsis: A rumor had been circulating like wild fire amongst the soldiers. A mad woman living on the island had died at the exact hour of 23:59, and it is believed that her spirit had returned to haunt the soldiers at the exact same time.
One of the recruits, Tan, the introverted platoon outcast, is adamant that he will be the next victim of the mad woman's spirit. He tries to convince his buddy Jeremy that the woman's spirit has been visiting him every night. Jeremy laughs it off and claims that there are no such things as ghosts in this world. They only exist because of Tan's overactive imagination.
However, during the 24 km road march for the platoon in the forest, Tan was found dead by the river, with his limbs contorted in a strange way and an expression of deep fear on his face. Overwhelmed with guilt, Jeremy decides to investigate Tan's death, convinced that it was not an accident as what the military officers believe.
Little does he know that the truth behind Tan's death will unearth a terrible dark secret of the island and he will have to confront his deepest fears in order to find the truth.
One wonders why it has taken so long for a local filmmaker to make a horror film out of the ghost stories we used to hear out of Pulau Tekong during Basic Military Training- after all, almost every Singaporean male who has been through National Service can probably share these stories, making it one of the most well-known urban legends ripe for cinematic picking. The fact that director Gilbert Chan has denied any relation between his film and the infamous Tekong stories we’ve heard- despite the obvious similarities- might provide some clue to this very mystery, especially given the fact that his ’23:59’ was shot across the Causeway and not where it matters.
Written by Chan himself, from a story by him and Ng Say Yong, it begins by recounting the legend of a woman who had died at the precise time of 23:59 and whose spirit has returned to haunt the island. One recruit, the quiet outcast Tan (Tedd Chan) is particularly spooked, because he has encountered a similar spooky encounter involving a woman and her young boy just a few nights before. The fact that another similarly timid recruit three years before him had the same encounter before hanging himself in the very bunk only amplifies his fears.
Besides Tan, writer/director Gilbert Chan uses the first half-hour before the actual haunting to bring three other characters into focus- Tan’s best buddy Jeremy (Henley Hii), the arrogant bully Dragon (Lawrence Koh in a scene-stealing performance) and the obligatory fat kid Lim (Tommy Kua) meant as comic fodder. But the truly standout amusing moments belong to Mark Lee’s veteran platoon sergeant Quah, the actor’s improvised Singlish delivery of the all-too familiar army lingo a gem in itself and easily the most entertaining aspect of the entire film.
Enjoyable it may be, the hilarity stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the proceedings, which are unfortunately too humourless for their own good. It’s obvious that Chan is trying hard to make a serious self-respecting horror film, but it’s also apparent that between the joviality of Lee and the sobriety of the rest of the actors, he is struggling hard to find the right tone for the movie. Eventually, he abandons the former for the latter as the recruits embark on their all-important passing-out route march, setting off a chain of events that will lead to Tan’s disappearance as well as his unfortunate demise later on.
Veering away from the familiar Tekong folklore, Chan instead borrows elements from ‘The Ring’ to weave a story about a local bomoh on the island and her disfigured daughter with unusual powers who becomes the object of ostracism by the other village kids. Some demonic possession also comes into play through Chester (Josh Lai), an introvert who isn’t as innocent as he seems at first sight- and indeed, what may have been a uniquely Singaporean army ghost story at the start turns into a hotchpotch of ideas taken from other horror classics both Asian and Western.
At least Chan knows how to build suspense where it matters, with some scenes- like one set in an old quiet toilet and another in the bunk where Tan gets locked by Dragon in his own cupboard- bound to raise some chills by evoking familiar fears of our own Tekong days. For a newcomer to the horror genre, director Gilbert Chan displays surprising flair in unnerving his audience- though he does betray his inexperience as a first-time solo director through inattention to other details especially glaring for those who have been through National Service.
Thankfully, he has a credible lead in the form of Henley Hii, the Malaysian actor who shot to fame after winning the equivalent of Project Superstar across the Causeway surprisingly affecting in his portrayal of anguish and frustration reconciling both his buddy’s mysterious death and his own troubled childhood. Besides Hii and Koh, the rest of the young cast are however lacklustre- especially Josh Lai’s flat and uninspired acting as the one with a guilty conscience, his handicap as an actor ever apparent now as in this year’s ‘Perfect Rivals’.
The fact that this first horror feature to be inspired by our local Tekong folklore has turned out only middling is all the more surprising considering the pedigree behind it, which includes Eric Khoo and Mike Wiluan of ‘Gorylah Pictures’. Both executive producers were behind the gory slasher ‘Macabre’, that has become somewhat of a cult classic overseas, but it is unlikely that ’23:59’ will be held in the same regard. Those wishing to relive some of their more spine-chilling memories of Basic Military Training may just get a kick out of it- just don’t go expecting a uniquely Singaporean horror classic.
(Not quite the uniquely Singaporean army horror it is supposed to be, ’23:59’ still packs its fair share of chills but borrows too heavily from other genre classics for its own good)
Review by Gabriel Chong