Busan 2021 review: 24 (Royston Tan)

24 is filled with the graceful celebration of life precisely by representing it through the spaces it evokes, common or unique, sanctioned or underground.”

Cinema is truth 24 times a second.” So reads the famous aphorism of Jean-Luc Godard, uttered in 1961’s Le Petit Soldat, about the image and its role in reflecting, refracting, corresponding to, or even distorting the fabric of reality. Taken at face value, the aphorism underscores the primacy of the image, the synthesis of individual frames which, taken together, constitute a continuum and hence construction of lived reality. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a film speaks a thousand pictures.

But ’24’ isn’t exclusively a metonym for the image; besides being synonymous with the standard projection rate today, it bears the mark of time, taken not only through the assembling of discrete frames but also through the continuous experience of reality, through sound. Each individual day is segmented into 24 hours, and 24 hours attributes its measuring stick less to spatiality — the domain of the image — than it coheres with temporality. And this is where sound enters the frame and displaces it somewhat; as a marker of experience, memory, time, identity, sound records the living, breathing shifts of fixed spaces and in identifying their transient everydayness affixes them with remembered permanence.

In Royston Tan’s 24, sound is both at one with, and distinct from, the image. The film’s para-narrative is broken down into 24 distinct shots, 24 distinct frames of geographical, historical, and temporal difference. At the same time it centres around the object of sound rather than the image’s medium. After all, the sound in each frame is diegetic, and recorded furthermore with a boom mike positioned in the frame at its centre. The narrative proper, in turn, centres around a mysterious sound man who revisits 24 frames, or places, or events, or times in his life, paying his final tribute to them before he departs for good.

Of course this sound man has passed on and has returned as a ghost to appraise his life. This life, notably, is marked by grander considerations beyond objective appraisal; it cements a legacy, not just of the man who lived it, but of his surroundings. It also frames this legacy through the prism of work and duty; the sound man does not merely passively observe the world he has left behind, but he also records it. And where Tan is concerned, both legacies conflate and converge: as one of Singapore’s most seminal and definitive filmmakers he, like his filmic stand-in, has dedicated his work to the country, his art to the nation, and his life to the duty of immortalising country and nation through film.

So more than anything else, 24 visits and revisits the country through Tan’s eyes, fresher with the clarity of retrospection. The sound man traverses locations rural and urban, traditional and modern; he charts, through his journey, the historical and cinematic milieu of a national legacy, spanning the quotidian interactions of residents, consumers, families, the cultural beliefs and practices they uphold, their public and private lives, relationships, joys, griefs, grievances, observations. He lingers in shops, recording studios, homes — spaces dead to him, but whose interiors are filled with the memories of the living, their memories of him. He haunts the spaces already haunted by memory, by traces of sound, revisiting the very same locations featured in Tan’s earlier works, now separated by the distance of decades.

In a way 24 espouses a formalist penchant for documentation, and it calls to mind, most recently, the portrait of an arts campus in James Benning’s Maggie’s Farm. Naturally Benning’s film features nary a word of dialogue, and his sound — playfully enough — is non-diegetic insofar as it was shot within the same premises but in a different moment from the image. One could draw stronger parallels between Maggie’s Farm and Tan Pin Pin’s In Time to Come, a similarly austere landscape film doubling as a national time capsule of change and continuity. Royston Tan, however, isn’t merely a composer of landscapes but also a portraitist, and even his most political output is deeply imbued with a sense of the personal. In 2003’s notorious 15, for example, the lives of five wayward teenagers foregrounded a harshly nonchalant society, and 2005’s 4:30 underscored through its tender pastiche of Tsai Ming-liang a quietly stifling and authoritarian state.

This sense of personal stake and of individual identity realizes the elegant synthesis of personal and political in arguably Tan’s most formally accomplished and emotionally affecting film to date (I must confess to having seen only three of his features, along with his segment Bunga Sayang in the celebrated anthology film 7 Letters). With the subtlety of a requiem, 24 elegizes the life of an individual tragically cut short, the collective life of a community as depicted onscreen, and the life of artistic endeavour. But it does not only lament or commiserate. Instead 24 is filled with the graceful celebration of life precisely by representing it through the spaces it evokes, common or unique, sanctioned or underground. Contrast an operatic climax, dramatizing a prince’s untimely death before the night of his sister’s wedding, with the film’s explicit opening scene of two men ferociously having sex. The diachronic evolution of cultural history, from myth and tradition to cosmopolitan homogeneity, is subsumed under the synchronicity of the frames, accorded equal weight and reverence in memory.

This is undoubtedly indicative of a humanism that courses through most of Tan’s oeuvre, and by extension those of his fellow Singaporean filmmakers. Where, however, others have capitulated to the dramatic sensibilities of wider audiences (especially Anthony Chen, considered the de facto face of Singaporean cinema today), Tan remains committed, as seen from his origins as an enfant terrible with 15, to a political sensitivity yet to be neutered or butchered by state co-optation the way Chen’s Wet Season had its forbidden central relationship contained within the apolitical dimensions of melodrama. Though his latest film examines the recollection of a life after its death, it is very much a karmic reflection of the possibility, and the everydayness, of life after death.

Foregrounding the persona of a sound man in 24 also realizes its metafictional and possibly autofictional nature. In fictionalizing an on-set accident that resulted in the sound man’s death, Tan venerates the labour of artists and workers, cast and crew, whose shadowy existence within the typically Singaporean view of techno-industrial productivity precludes artistic pursuit for pragmatic job calculus. At the same time, choosing specifically the sound man as his persona downplays the mythology of auteurism for the material contributions of community, while instituting the freedom to trespass conventional image-making for the grander, more unified project of meaning-making. Seeing 24 in light of Halyna Hutchins’ tragic passing intensifies the precious and elusive value each frame of colour, each ounce of sound contains — the fruits of hard craft and painstaking time. In an era and nation whose existence is predicated on time passing, ever-moving to some impossible destination, the need to take stock of life and affirm its impossible beauty and tragedy has never been more urgent; 24 does so with elegiac finesse, distilling frames and stopping time, distilling them into eternal tableaux, and letting the melodies of wind, water, people flow through, softly and seamlessly.