Like a contemporary Asian new-wave film on amphetamines, Royston Tan's 15 is a surprising entry to emerge from the repressive state of Singapore. Owing a great deal of artistic debt to the early works of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, the film documents the lives of several Singaporean street kids who've managed to screw up their lives to an impressive degree. Karaoke has replaced yeh-yeh and swallowing pills substitutes for smoking Gauloises, but the documentary street style of 1950s French cinema permeates this Asian homage.
15, while tracing the lives of its pierced and tattooed teenage heroes, lacks any semblance of a story. But while this would be a death knell for most films, the lack of a narrative structure only works to 15's advantage. Director Tan mixes and matches media formats to create an episodic film that is part movie, part music-video, part Playstation.
The boys' halfhearted attempt at techno-karaoke comes across like a slick pop video and one teen's search for the perfect building to commit suicide from is presented like a slideshow-a macabre Kodak moment. The characters' vision of their own world, shaped by TV, video games and Internet porn, is projected onto the cinema screen itself. In a scene of play-acting, the kids shoot incandescent lightning bolts at each other; when their gangs engage in turf wars, the battle is half video arcade, half Warner Brothers cartoon.
Full of teen angst and latent homoeroticism, 15 teeters close to being another film in a long line of Harmony Korine imitations. But the pop-culture obsession and drug culture of our heroes, so common in other teen-angst films, seem fresher against the backdrop of the new Singaporean commercial districts. Shot guerrilla-style on the streets, 15 makes apt use of the high-rises that have popped up all over eastern Asia in the past decade; the teens' acne-scarred, pierced and tattooed skin is shown in opposition to the glistening and glass-walled skyscrapers around them. Eager to advertise their tough-guy machismo, the boys spend an alarming amount of time hanging out at the mall food court and bumming cigarettes.
What is most astonishing is that a film like 15 could ever be made in Singapore in the first place. With his emphasis on tattoo parlors, pornography and drugs, not to mention violence reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, one would expect that filmmaker Royston Tan would be next in line for a public caning. Perhaps this rise in freedom of expression owes more to capitalism and the shiny high-rises, malls, fast food and music television favored by 15's protagonists than to the appeal of democracy itself.