As the first female receipient (‘A’ levels catergory) of the Prime Minister’s Book Prize, I would definitely want to watch this movie as soon as possible. It is not only supported by the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism, it is also about an autistic child in a mainstream school (a topic close to my heart because I was form teacher to one of the first such boys accepted by a mainstream secondary school). And then, the plot involves the art form called Wayang (local term for Chinese Opera).
Austin Chong plays the lead role of the autistic boy named Open (his surname is ‘Ou’ and his name is ‘Ben’ – in Hanyu Pinyin – , so eveyone calls him Open). Right from the first scene, he got the mannerism down pat – eyes blinking furiously and hand rubbing one side of his head, drawing during lessons and ignoring what his teacher and classmates are doing, even if some of them tease him and bully him.
Henry Thia, in his cameo as a Hokkien-speaking fishmonger who cannot pronounce Mandarin properly, draws laughs from the audience. Lorena Gibb, as Bao Er (whose father is a Mandarin-speaking Canadian – Christopher Downs – and mother a former Opera trouper from Beijing) is someone with great acting potential.
Typical of persons with autistim syndrome, Open is obsessed with one thing – in his case, drawing – and even draws when he’s walking. Instructed by his father Eli Shih) to meet him at the latter’s office at 2pm, Open waits outside the door and enters only when the alarm on his watch tells him it’s 2pm.
Another habit of Open’s is spinning his pen in his fingers. When his mischievous classmates snatch his drawing pad while he is drawing in class, he cries and scream and would not stop. He cannot bear being touched and when he accidentally pushes a girl and causes her to fall, this girls’ mother complains to the school, demanding an apology from Open, unaccepting of any explanation or apologies from the school staff (including the teacher played by Joci Kok who also sings the movie’s theme song) and Open’s father. Her parting shot is that Open is hurting other students and affecting their learning, so he should not be allowed in this school but in a special school. She is also disdainful of the Chinese language, telling Bao Er’s mother that in Singapore, Chinese is not important but English is very important, to which Bao Er retorts: “You’re a Chinese, yet why won’t you speak Chinese?”
In contrast, Bao Er’s father explains to her when he finds her reading up on autism on the internet, that these people cannot have conversations like you and me; don’t tease them but help them. If only more parents are so understanding! Open is very talented and has lots of gifts and is very smart; but he just doesn’t know how to express it.
Bao Er notices Open’s affinity for the Monkey God and persuades the teacher-in-charge (who is Open’s father but she doesn’t yet know) to include him in the performance group. Slowly, Open is accepted by all. A visit to the Singapore Zoo shows how the classmates are more accepting, understanding and helpful towards Open.
Open’s mother (May Phua) is quietly suffering an emotional turmoil by burying herself either in work or pretending that she cares more about retail therapy and having a good time with her friends. When she announces that she is leaving for New Zealand for a work project on the same afternoon as the school’s opera performance, Open and his father are taken aback. On that afternoon, Open asks his father if “she isn’t coming because I’m different”. His father replies: “With make-up, on the stage, we are all the same”. This scene really tug at my heartstring.
When it is Open’s turn to take to the stage, he ignores all cues but keeps staring at the vacant seat meant for his mother. When she turns up with a finger puppet, I cried. The background music is Bach’s Prelude in C Major, played by piano and violins. My tears flow freely through the next few scenes where mother and son meet and hug and many photographs of the performers and their parents are taken.
Good thing there are a few more concluding scenes showing how Open’s mother decides to stay, Open is happier and livelier and many lovely views of the Singapore seafront, including the iconic Flyer, Marina Bay Sands, ArtScience Museum, The Esplanade and the financial district. By the end of the credits (and the list is very long indeed, as some earlier scenes are shot in China and many people from both countries are involved in this project), my tears have dried.
Kudos to the director Raymond Tan, the music composers (including Jean Low) and the cinematographers and photographers. I look forward to their next collaboration.
I read somewhere that a book has been written based on this movie (not the other way round), and I hope there will be copies for loan at the public libraries soon.