Note: This commentary contains spoilers for the movie “Ah Boys to Men 4”.
“Ah Boys to Men 4” is commercialism at its most crass. If you came on time for the movie, you’ll be subject to multiple awful commercials featuring the “Ah Boys to Men 4” cast before the film itself starts.
Then the movie begins and you get bludgeoned by full-screen logos of the major sponsors before the story even begins. The cinematic equivalent of screaming “BUY OUR PRODUCTS BECAUSE WE PAID FOR THIS MOVIE!”
Except that audiences paid to watch a movie, not a set of hammy product placement scenes stitched together. The dialogue is so contrived and in-your-face that you can barely tell the difference between the commercials and the film itself. If you’ve seen the cast in other films, then you’ll know that they are capable of better acting.
So it’s curious to see how their abilities have regressed once they’ve returned to the franchise that propelled them to fame. It’s mostly not the cast’s fault, but the script (written by Jack Neo and Ivan Ho).
The only two bright sparks in the cast are Wang Weiliang and Justin Misson.
Misson reprises his Botak Lum character, channeling the sarcastic military warrant officer within him to incredibly irritating effect. For those of you who’ve ever had to endure the barbs of an army Encik, Misson brings back fond memories.
Wang, who absolutely shines in his role as Lobang, gives an organic, moderated, and believable performance. Perhaps it’s because he speaks in the language he’s most comfortable in, unlike Apple Chan’s character.
While Apple Chan’s character, Zhang Xinyi, has been touted as one of the highlights of the film, language is clearly an issue for her. She’s forced to speak in proper English, which she can’t — mangling words like “purposely” and not pronouncing her end consonants. It’s a weird choice given that other characters, like the aforementioned Lobang and Ip Man (Noah Yap), are given leeway to speak in Mandarin, Hokkien, and Singlish, which clearly come more naturally to them.
If Chan were more fluent in English, like Joshua Tan or Maxi Lim, her performance wouldn’t be so grating. Just to be clear, this is not a matter of accent — Aloysius (Maxi Lim’s character) speaks in proper, Singapore-accented English, which sounds perfectly natural. It’s the actual enunciation of words that trips her up so badly, even when she’s in the midst of trying to emote anger.
As a result, she doesn’t convincingly pull off her role because she struggles so much to speak properly. It’s telling that details like these are overlooked, while we have product placement shots galore. It doesn’t help that the subtitles are rife with errors (spelling errors like “aparently” [apparently] and “don” [don’t] and omitted words like “and”), even when it comes to military terms (“Nsmen” at one point, and jumping between “LT” and “LTA” when referring to Xinyi’s rank)
On the other hand, dedicated scenes are given to her competency in hand-to-hand combat. The much talked about sexism of the film is as bad as you’ve heard, because a major subplot about Xinyi having to earn the respect of the NSmen is resolved by having her beat one of them up (in a contrived, civilian, non-military, absolutely-within-the-rules situation at a gym).
You’d think that after previous reports of Jack Neo’s treatment of women, the issue would have been handled with more finesse. Instead, you have characters making distasteful jokes (complete with phallic symbols) that would have gotten them arrested in a normal situation.
It’s not that Neo can’t tell a good story, or that he’s lost the ability to. Last year’s “Long Long Time Ago” is proof that he knows how to make a good movie, weave an engaging tale, and pay attention to the important details. But all that is thrown out of the window in the mad cash grab that is “Ah Boys to Men 4”.
Okay, maybe this is all a little harsh. Surely the non-product placement portions of the film are fun to watch, right?
Wrong. When the movie isn’t trying to hawk the products of its sponsors, the dialogue defaults to generic motherhood statements. There’s no plot, because none of it matters since everyone’s just going to go back to their normal lives after their reservist stint anyway. The narration even explicitly points out that everyone went back to their normal lives after their reservist training, as if audiences thought that they would all suddenly sign on after the events of the movie.
The film makes a cursory attempt to point out the common grouses that Singaporeans have with reservist training, but it’s a token attempt to present the other side of the issue. After all, the points raised are never resolved satisfactorily, and all problems are magically solved after — wait for it — there’s an attack by a swarm of bees.
Yes. The climax is a bee attack that everyone survives (but of course, would you expect any casualties in the film?). Before that you get a supposed “action scene” with military vehicles in action, but the shots are so haphazard and chaotic that the film has to literally flash a handily labelled map every now and then to show you what’s going on. It’s not even a set of well-rendered graphics, but a map that looks like it was thrown together using PowerPoint animation.
Like many people’s attitudes to reservist, you’re just waiting for “Ah Boys to Men 4” to end once the non-stop product placement shots begin. Audiences deserve a proper film, not a 2 hour 15 minute long set of thinly disguised commercials.
Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter, having written for “Lion Mums”, “Crimewatch”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.
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