Bay Area Reporter: Singapore tattooed love-boys

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Singapore tattooed love-boys

Roystan Tan on his portrait of life at age '15'

"We take an ambiguous position. We say, OK, leave them alone, but let's leave the law as it is for the time being, and let's have no gay parades." — Former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, on gay rights in Singapore, in The New York Times.

Roystan Tan's astonishing personal portrait of a quartet of trying to survive their tiny nation's draconian approach to personal freedom joins Beautiful Boxer, Lan Yu, Macho Dancer and Farewell My Concubine as one of the truly unique portraits of queer life in today's Asia. The attractive DVD package from Picture This contains a deleted-scenes section with a heartbreaking personal confession, as well as trailers for both the Singapore and international editions of the film, demonstrating just how long we may have to wait for the first Singapore gay parade.

Tan, a self-confessed "wild boy" himself a decade or so ago, shows us a dark side of Singapore and the psyches of frustrated schoolboys in his punkish feature, expanded from an earlier short film. Vynn, Eric, Shawn, and Melvin are seen in high-risk misadventures: exchanging tattoos and bloody body piercings, joking about decadent sex with girlfriends and each other, rumbling with other Chinese-boy gangs, getting caned at school and tossed out of their homes. A poignant scene finds a boy having a cheap piece of cake shoved in his face by his best friend, the only one who remembered his birthday.

The feature is considerably sadder than the short, with its focus on the suicidal fixations of Singapore's hooligan class of kids. The film treats suicide seriously, but also playfully. At one point, a young man goes on a bus trip around the city, looking for an aesthetically suitable building from which to end his life.

A bare-chested boy reaches over to another in bed, and asks, "Can I give you a hug?" Tan explains that the film is based entirely on things he witnessed off-camera, adding that the boys aren't gay or straight, just lonely youth looking for affection.

Full immersion

Tan says the tattoos and steely-eyed looks of his young cast, their flirtation with death and despair, and their lack of belief in a future, brought him face-to-face with his own youthful memories. He wears a white shirt with pinstripes and peers at me in a hotel conference room through self-adjusting prescription sunglasses. He describes how he plugged into Singapore's gang-boys while teaching a class to help kids reform through an immersion in the arts.

"I got to know one of them really, really well, and he opened his world to me, and started sharing a lot of his stories. The problems he shared were similar to ones I encountered 10 years ago." Tan says that the drive to succeed in the semi-authoritarian Singapore — with its draconian drug laws, ban on chewing gum, and severe penalties for wayward youth (you may recall the American schoolboy who was publicly caned by Singapore authorities during the Clinton era) — creates a group of teens who feel their lives are effectively over at 15. "I was 100% like them, except that I didn't have a tattoo. We haven't made much progress at all since I was a kid."

Tan bears the emotional scars not only of his brief fling with gang culture, but also of a jolt when his father went bankrupt, a victim of the hyper-volatile Singapore real estate market. Since that day when he was 17, Tan has been, like his subjects, a creature of his own invention. One of the problems he faced making a movie about kids whose lives are permanently set on warp speed is that some of them vanished while he still needed to film them. Tan says 15 is structured to reflect the roller-coaster highs and lows of the kids' lives.

"A great example would be taking drugs. The first 25 minutes is almost like you get a high and everything is fun; the second part is, you anchor yourself down and the effects are over; and the final segment is almost like the withdrawal syndrome, which hits you back to reality, the painful truth that you need to deal with."

The badges of distinction sported by the gang-boys of 15 are elaborate tattoos and body piercings. I told Tan that watching young Eric get his lip pierced on camera was akin to watching a horror film. "When we first saw him, he was piercing himself. I asked him why he liked to pierce. 'Is it because it's fashionable?' He gave a very good answer. 'When you're feeling pain, you just need an additional pain from the outside to forget the pain you have.'"