23:59 Movie Review
Written by Karin Crighton
DVD released by Magnet Releasing
Written and directed by Gilbert Chan
2011, Rated R, 78 minutes
Released on June 4th, 2013
Henley Hii as Jeremy
Tedd Chan as Tan
Lawrence Koh as Dragon
Mark Lee as Sergeant Kuah
23:59 is my kind of ghost story. Foreign language, no CGI, and the 1980s: a trifecta of Karin adoration.
It’s 1983 and a troop of Malaysian soldiers is in its last week of basic training on a desolate island. The weakest link by far is Tan, a young man trying to prove his worth to his best friend Jeremy, the camp bully Dragon, and himself, but Dragon’s spooky stories of the island’s murderous ghost aren’t helping. When Tan falls victim to a mysterious fate, Jeremy is beside himself with guilt. But is it his regrets or a spirit that is plaguing the recruits? And as Dragon points out, “just because you don’t believe doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
23:59 is lo-tech but avoids cheesiness by using sleight of hand instead of cheap CGI. A hand there, a shadow there, all add up to a terrifying heap of “what’s going to happen next?.” The nightmare is always happening just off screen with the actors reacting to the gruesome visions while the viewer desperately wants (and adamantly does not want) to see what is lurking out of frame. The climax when the terror is finally revealed is beautifully done, with a clean transition from fear to pity to love. Very few horror movies can win your heart, and 23:59 masters it with precision.
The actors are invested and committed. Henley Hii’s Jeremy is endearing as a man who only wants the best for himself and his friends. Tedd Chan as Tan is a bit one-note, but remarkably the camp bully Dragon (Lawrence Koh) is given two dimensions and Koh redeems the infuriating character quickly. Mark Lee and Benjamin Lim compete skillfully as the aging Sergeant Kuah and the upstart Captain Hong. Most exceptional is the storytelling. The struggle of old world and new plays out crisply on the screen; it reminds us time passes and while change will happen, we can’t abandon those things that matter. The devotion of the older sergeant to a spiritual solution for the mysterious violence in his camp and the younger “fake Caucasian” commander’s refusal to take such things seriously is a clever callback to the economic boom of Singapore at that time in history and the growing pains of a rapidly expanding infrastructure. In the eighties, the US also began supplying the Malaysian army with the standard M16 rifle, which would explain the insistence of the army higher ups infusing their language with American lingo. I love smart writing and even more I love a movie so good that makes me want to research Malaysian history.
The humanity of this story is what won me over. The villain is not a villain, just a victim of the ignorance of a simpler era. People have to atone for the mistakes they make and only when they do can they have peace. The characters learn from their past and try to make their futures better. There are no easy answers.
And history is always doomed to repeat itself.
Video, Audio and Special Features:
Video, audio and special features will not be graded as this was a screener.