[This article is adapted from an essay written for PS2256 Politics on Screen, Semester 1 of 2012/2013.]
I first heard about Boo Junfeng through my friend, after she watched his feature film Sandcastle. She was touched by the film and wanted to purchase the DVD for keepsake. I had not watched the film yet, and what I had read from film reviews was that though it was a family drama, it contained some social and political critiques. Curious, I went with her to the launch of the DVD, and purchased one too.
I was awed by the film, not because it was a special-effects thriller, but by how an individual’s story was entangled with national narratives of history and identity. I thought the film’s ending was ambivalent, that there was a nagging sense of loss and emptiness which could never be easily resolved. More importantly, the film actually evoked a greater sense of “Singaporean-ness” than what Jack Neo’s works did for me. The latter had concentrated on our obsession with grades and money through humour; certainly they were very “Singaporean” in nature. But Sandcastle seemed to reach deeper into the soul.
Later on, I had the opportunity of watching Boo’s short films, in different screenings. My curiosity deepened: who was Boo, and why was he interested in issues ranging from memory to sexuality? His short film Tanjong Rhu was about male homosexual entrapments, but the tensions and emotions evoked, in my friend’s words, might “reverse a homophobic’s attitudes towards homosexuals”.
Boo was director of campaign videos for Pink Dot 2011 and Pink Dot 2012; straddling the boundaries between director-artist and activist. Yet he is “mainstream” enough to be selected as creative director for National Day Parade 2010 (probably the most masculine event of the year); he was also awarded Singapore Youth Award in 2011. Who exactly is he? What and how can we understand about Singapore from his works, especially Sandcastle?
With these questions at the back of my mind, when the opportunity to write a term paper on “The political meaning of [a film]” arose, it was irresistible. By critically examining Sandcastle and relying on interview materials, I sought to answer these questions. I hope the reader can also gain a better understanding of Singapore’s national identity and memory as represented on Sandcastle.
The release of Sandcastle in 2010 was followed by media attention on the film and its director, Boo Junfeng. It stands out in Singapore cinema as the first film to compete in the International Critics’ Week of the Cannes Film Festival; and among other accolades and awards, it was well-received by local audiences .
Sandcastle’s success must be seen within the changing political, social and economic landscape in Singapore, as it was a specific product of economic policies and liberalization of the arts and culture industries. These were attributable to the People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s vision of Singapore as a global city with multiple hubs, therefore keeping Singapore relevant in the age of globalization . Thus, Singapore’s ambition as a “Global Media City” led to support and grooming of the local film industry, resulting in the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) to fund Sandcastle .
The government has been loosening regulations in the arts and culture domains to tap on their economic potential, and also to legitimize Singapore’s status as a global city. However, the government still exercises a degree of control, albeit away from public eyes . Hence, the production and achievements of Sandcastle are embedded in the interactions between globalization and the local polity.
But beyond this connection to politics, Sandcastle the film deserves examination for its exploration of nation-building in Singapore. This is because upon closer study of the film, the director as auteur, and Singapore’s history and politics, Sandcastle captures one aspect of the struggles inherent within the politics of national identity, in particular the use of memories to shape history, which in turn determines identity.
The political meaning of Sandcastle lies in its depiction of national identity as a contested arena between the state and individuals. The former’s construction of national identity is exposed as unnatural and fragile; while reactions from the latter group are represented as possessing the potential to challenge the dominant construct. The film places a premium on young people, arguing that the young should be inquisitive and be aware of marginalized voices, so that the latter will not completely disappear. But Boo seems to prefer a non-confrontational approach towards the politics of national identity.
Forging National Identity: Artificial and Fragile
Sandcastle depicts the construction of a Singaporean national identity as artificial and fragile, and it presents how national identity has been manufactured. The PAP government drove nation-building in Singapore after separation from Malaysia, to create a “Singaporean” nation where none existed before. In 1997, following decades of neglect of history, the PAP government launched National Education (NE) to educate students on the “Singapore Story”, an officially-sanctioned narrative of Singapore’s past to build and strengthen national identity . While the government claimed this narrative to be “objective”, skeptics perceived it as yet another tool by the PAP government to maintain its political dominance .
Boo is one skeptic; in his director’s statement for Sandcastle, he declares “national identity in Singapore has been forged through years of propaganda” . In the opening scenes, recorded footage of old Singapore is shown, in both black-and-white and colour, and this illustrates the manipulation of media to construct a Singaporean identity. The screening of certain clips, such as the first National Day Parade (NDP), mechanized ports and high-rise public housing, are reminiscent of NDP shows which attempt to engender a common sense of belonging and pride. Sandcastle suggests this visual imagery of progress has entered public memory, and is accepted as the authoritarian historical narrative. This in turn defines contemporary national identity, which is arguably predicated on economic progress.
The dominance of the narrative is further supported by the appearance of six Singapore flags in less than three minutes of the opening scenes; it first appears on black-and-white, then on colour, before being seen in the actual footage of Sandcastle. National identity, as embodied in the Singapore flag and tied to the narrative of progress, seems firmly established in the present.
Yet Boo constantly reminds the audience that Singapore is an artificial nation. In a scene which can easily go unnoticed, a passport bearing the label “Republic of Singapore” is juxtaposed with a booklet titled “Battle for Merger”, alluding simultaneously to the fierce struggle between the PAP and Barisan Sosialis (BS) for merger with Malaysia, and the subsequent expulsion of Singapore. Boo’s juxtaposition of the two documents highlights how nations can be ephemeral; just as the ecstasy over Malaysia’s formation is short-lived, even the construction of a Singaporean nation can be an exercise in futility. The opening scenes of old footage accompanied by choral music of the popular NDP song ‘Home’ is suggestive of a theatrical performance trying to manufacture sentiments and authenticity.
In fact, Boo argues that the manufactured artificiality of national identity is inherently flawed because it is porous and fragile, as symbolized by the title of Sandcastle. National identity is built like a sandcastle, and crumbles easily once waves sweep it away. The shoreline where the sandcastle is constructed represents a symbolic site of struggle between the past and present, between transience and permanence, between alternative and dominant ideologies, and between the state and individuals .
Ideology and Reality
Boo highlights the tensions between these opposing forces by exposing the cultural idealization or myth of Singaporean society cultivated by the PAP government. As globalization proved to be a double-edged sword which brought economic opportunities but threatened national identity and social cohesion, the PAP government championed “Asian values” in the 1980s and 1990s, and tried to entrench Singaporeans’ sense of belonging by emphasizing on cultural values and traditions .
Singaporean society is idealized as cosmopolitan, economically-competitive yet imbued with traditional Asian values, such as Confucian ethics for the Chinese majority. Hence, in Sandcastle, En’s mother represents the cultural and social myth of Singaporean society in which children should be the primary caretakers of their parents, because of their Asian values. Even as she dismisses the grandfather’s (her father-in-law) last wish to enter a nursing home with the grandmother as “impossible”, as it seems to her contrary to Confucian ethics of filial piety, she is unable to take care of the grandmother, whose worsening dementia results in tensions in the family. The grandmother’s daughter admits she is unable to take care of her own mother because she has found a new job, therefore transferring the responsibility to the mother. In the end, the grandmother enters a nursing home.
Sandcastle draws attention to the divergence between the cultural myth of Singaporean society and the reality faced by some families in the context of an ageing population; they struggle to reconcile their idealized identities and values with socio-economic realities. This contradiction betrays the manufactured artificiality and fragility of national identity imposed on the people. The motif of the shoreline becomes apparent again when En wheels his grandmother, who has caused frictions between him and the mother, to the beach. Her position on the shoreline affirms its symbolic nature as a site of struggle between opposing forces, demonstrating the precarious and fragile space which national identity occupies.
Contesting National Identity: Silence and Personal Memories
On the one hand, Sandcastle depicts the artificiality and fragility of the state’s construction of history and national identity; and on the other hand, it portrays individuals who represent different groups of people in Singapore’s history, and their respective attitudes towards the dominant construction. Sandcastle shows how these individuals in their own ways react or contest this construction, and their impact on En, who represents the young.
For example, the mother represents the generation of activists who gave up and decided to conform to the state’s dictates of history and national identity, because of either disenchantment or fear. She chooses to repress her personal memories, avoid discussion of her experiences, and is too willing to conform to the status quo. Sandcastle captures this part of political reality well, because former activists and detainees rejected Boo’s requests for interviews, even though some prominent ones like Fong Swee Suan attended the film screening, but without giving public comments .
Their continued presence and silence suggest an uneasy co-existence between the dominant narrative of history and identity, and the power of personal memories to overturn this dominance. In Sandcastle, the more passive and evasive the mother is, the more potent the father’s past becomes, as it ruptures the construction of history and identity which En, and by extension, most young Singaporeans, have been inculcated with. Despite her involvement in student protests, she lied to En she did not participate, and accused the father of being “brainwashed”. Yet En finds contrary evidence on film negatives, and the father’s letters even hinted she was a better rally speaker than him. The mother’s lies and subsequent uncovering by En prove that her suppression of personal memories has failed, and that the truth will eventually come to light.
Ironically, while Sandcastle suggests the state selects film clips to craft its dominant narrative of progress and identity, the mother’s hidden past is uncovered on film negatives, suggesting the double-edged uses of visual media. This discovery, as symbolized by the motif of shoreline, sweeps away En’s understanding of history and national identity. As he realizes his personal connection to a past which the state and his own mother suppress and conceal, his conception of national identity built upon the dominant narrative of progress becomes complex and ambiguous.
Sandcastle: Youth Apathy and Awareness
However, Boo seems to favour the ambiguous conclusion reached by En, due to his personal concern about how the young are apathetic on political and social issues. By studying Boo as an auteur, supported by evidence from his interviews and previous works, Sandcastle reflects his criticism of youth apathy in political and social issues, and his hopes for the young to understand how greater awareness of society can benefit them.
As a homosexual, Boo has personal identification with marginalized groups and their desires for additional spaces in society, and coupled with his stated mission as a film-maker is to increase political and social awareness of taboo issues, these illuminate understanding of Sandcastle as a film for possible political and social action .
Boo does not criticize the mother’s shortcomings and the silence of the generation of activists whom she represents. Besides, Sandcastle does not capture new developments among that generation, such as book launches, forum talks and video recordings, as they share their versions of the past and contest the PAP government’s official account of history . Sandcastle’s attention on the mother’s silence, without holding the possibility of her changing and speaking out as former activists in reality have done, throws into sharper relief En’s quest to understand his father’s past. Thus, in one scene which shows the grandfather telling En about the 1956 Chinese school protests, Sandcastle deplores the youth apathy represented by En. Again, film negatives are used to reveal the past, and the grandfather’s explanation to En that the protestors are idealistic and anti-colonial runs against the PAP’s dominant narrative, which demonizes the school protests as a combination of “communism, chauvinism and communalism” antagonistic to nation-building and the survival of Singapore .
The grandfather represents the generation who witnessed the processes of decolonization and nation-building, and his position as a witness possessing a repository of first-hand memories is further emphasized when he tells En he was a reporter during the 1950s. However, En walks away to answer a call from his friend, and the grandfather, in disappointment, looks away from the camera, symbolizing the inter-generational and ideological gaps between them. This scene represents Boo’s criticism of youth apathy towards the past, and En is punished with the grandfather’s death in the next scene. En would never hear his grandfather’s first-hand accounts, and instead he is left with fragments such as film negatives to understand his father’s past.
Towards the end of Sandcastle, the voice of En’s late father narrating his letters suggests a sense of loss and alienation; “our photos are destroyed, our story will never be heard”. While En has discovered his father’s past, it is only a fraction and remains incomplete. Sandcastle closes with him at the shoreline, upset over his grandmother’s passing, and the motif of the shoreline symbolizes his bid to reclaim memories from the past, with implications for the contested terrain of national identity.
Boo’s didactic purpose here is to convey the transience of memories, and he points out if young people like En continues to be apathetic, they will not understand why the past and present developed as such, and Boo denounces this lack of understanding as “unhealthy” for society because they might make uninformed decisions .
Passive and Non-Confrontational?
But Sandcastle does not invite political and social action for resolutions of the politics of national identity. Boo believes it is necessary to raise awareness and create acceptance, and similar to his non-confrontational vision for the gay community, “we don’t have to be angry to make ourselves heard”, Sandcastle depicts a calm closure between En and his mother .
En does not confront his mother over her lies, and instead places his father’s letter to her in a place which she can see. The mother understands this gesture as a sign her lies have been exposed, and the camera focuses on her mirror reflection as she rereads the letter, emphasizing her duplicity in the past and present. But the mother does not confront En too, and Sandcastle suggests their estrangement has been resolved. This peaceful resolution, with each understanding the hidden past has been uncovered and therefore shifting En’s perception of the present, promises limited political and social action for contesting the politics of national identity.
On the one hand, Boo wants young people to deal with taboo issues, and he believes Sandcastle “can set a certain benchmark”; but on the other hand, he also argues for awareness and acceptance, rejecting the idea that he or his film has any political agenda . This is suggested in Sandcastle. While the voice of the late father mentions the “utopia” in the sea, which can be construed as a reference to communism, he refuses to sign a statement rejecting communism, because he insists he is never a communist in the first place, and his refusal resulted in twenty-seven years of detention and exile.
Hence, Sandcastle argues for the possibility of being politically aware, without taking part in partisan politics, though it hints at the heavy costs which could be incurred for straddling this boundary. The PAP government does not perceive this distinction well; it has banned films on opposition politicians and former detainees, on the basis these films have political agendas to undermine its authority. This suspicion of films reveals and supports Boo’s assessment of films, that they can “change things” and are “potentially powerful” . Sandcastle offers this possibility, though it is non-confrontational in tone and prefers raising awareness.
In conclusion, the political meaning of Sandcastle is centred on one aspect of the politics of national identity, which is a contest between the state’s dominant construction of history and national identity on one hand, and the challenges posed by individuals through their use of personal memories on the other hand. Sandcastle suggests the young should be aware of political and social issues, but this awareness, however, need not translate into direct political action.
 Boo Junfeng, “Bio,” Boo Junfeng’s personal website, http://boojunfeng.com/bio (accessed 20 October 2012).
 Lim Y.C. Linda and Lee Soo Ann, “Globalizing State, Disappearing Nation: The Impact of Foreign Participation in the Singapore Economy,” in Management of Success: Singapore Revisited, ed. Terence Chong (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010): 146.
 Singapore Media Fusion, “Singapore Media City: Gateway to the World,” Singapore Media Fusion, http://www.smf.sg/SingaporeMediaCity/Pages/SingaporeMediaFusion.aspx (accessed 20 October 2012).
 Terence Chong, “‘Back Regions’ and ‘Dark Secrets’ in Singapore: The Politics of Censorship and Liberalization,” Space and Polity 14, no. 3 (November 2010): 238.
 Loh Kah Seng, “Within the Singapore Story: the use and narrative of history in Singapore,” Crossroads: an Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 12, no 2 (1998): 6.
 Ibid, 17.
 Boo Junfeng, “Director’s Statement,” Zhao Wei Films, http://www.zhaowei.com/sandcastle/index.html (accessed 20 October 2012).
 Ng Yi-Sheng, “On Film, On Identity: Boo Junfeng on Sandcastle,” Civic Life: Singapore, http://www.civiclife.sg/blog/?p=1563 (accessed 20 October 2012).
 Michael Hill, “‘Asian Values’ as reverse Orientalism: Singapore,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 41, no. 2 (August 2000): 184-185.
 Lim Cheng Tju and Hong Lysa, “The Shifting Sands of Time: Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastle as Filmic History,” S/PORES, http://s-pores.com/2010/12/sandcastle/ (accessed 20 October 2012); Ng Yi-Sheng, “On Film, On Identity: Boo Junfeng on Sandcastle.”
 Dean Napolitano, “Singaporean Director Is Coming of Age,” The Wall Street Journal Scene Asia, http://blogs.wsj.com/scene/2010/11/19/boo-junfeng-and-sandcastle/ (accessed 20 October 2012)
John Davidson, “Boo Junfeng: Singapore’s filmmaker with a cause,” CNNGo, http://www.cnngo.com/singapore/life/boo-junfeng-singapores-next-film-making-star-437297 (accessed 20 October 2012);
Sylvia Tan, “Taking Shape: Boo Junfeng,” fridae, http://www.fridae.asia/newsfeatures/printable.php?articleid=10213 (accessed 20 October 2012);
Lim Jin Li, “‘Sandcastle’: Both Sides Now,” Asia! http://www.theasiamag.com/perspectives/couch-potato/%E2%80%9Csandcastle%E2%80%9D-both-sides-now?page=0,1 (accessed 20 October 2012).
 Clarissa Oon, “In Search of the Other Singapore Story,” The Straits Times, 14 August 2010.
 Huang Jianli, “The Young Pathfinders: Portrayal of Student Political Activism,” in Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore, eds. Michael D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008): 202.
 Sylvia Tan, “Taking Shape: Boo Junfeng.”
 Dean Napolitano, “Singaporean Director Is Coming of Age”; Lim Jin Li, “‘Sandcastle’: Both Sides Now.”
 Claire Huang, “Censors ban Martyn See’s film on Dr Lim Hock Siew,” Channel NewsAsia, http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1068952/1/.html (accessed 20 October 2012).
 Lim Jin Li, “‘Sandcastle’: Both Sides Now.”