By the mid-2010s, there was a noticeable shift in the global culture towards more socially progressive causes, driven largely by the internet and social media. As Disney’s Marvel franchise and movies like DC’s Wonder Woman (2017) would go on to demonstrate, there was now an easy buck to be made from taking a stand on social issues.
The formula is simple: just slap a <insert minority> into a lead role, write some generic dialogue about empowerment, add a dash of 90s nostalgia, then have said minority kick the ass of their historic oppressor … and voila! The audience can now experience the catharsis of shattering the Grand Illusion, while enriching the coffers of global MNCs. Everyone wins.
Coincidentally, this sudden whiff of profits also made these ‘Western’ ideologies more palatable in Singapore. This is reflected in the final two movies of the Ah Boys Franchise — with mixed results.
Ah Boys to Men 3 (2015): Every Seamen’s Fantasy
In the Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen, Jack Neo uses the Time Stone to transport his characters back to an alternate timeline where they enlist in the Naval Diving Unit (NDU) instead — in order to produce propaganda for the Singapore Navy. The early films’ success at the box office is reflected in the now bloated runtime of two and half hours.
Supported by an even more massive budget, the audience is treated to yet another CGI opening sequence. This time, our heroes board an ocean vessel, where a group of United Colours of Benetton terrorists have taken the crew hostage.
To be honest, despite the CGI fireworks, it’s getting late and I find myself nodding off within the first few minu—
HOLY SHIT. NEVERMIND. A Chinese female terrorist just got shot in the face!
“There are no female crew on the list,” said the naval commando to his subordinate. “Do your homework.”
Duly reprimanded, I’m now wide awake. The threat of terrorism in Singapore is no laughing matter. Like the Spanish Inquisition, it can pop up in places where we least expect.
Unfortunately, this headshot is also the highwater mark of this movie. Perhaps this is due to the limitations of the alternate timeline, where the characters must retrace the exact same arc, albeit with a few adjustments. Wayang King is still very wayang, but in this timeline, he actually fights back and stands up for himself. Meanwhile, Ken Chow’s girlfriend leaves him again for being too childish.
“I need someone who’s stronger, who’s able to protect me, love me, care about me, understand my feelings,” says his girlfriend. “I need someone who is more determined and mature.”
“You’ve been watching too many movies because that person doesn’t even exist!” yells Ken.
Ooh, nice. This movie is breaking the fourth wall to gaslight the audience.
The only standout scene is a genuinely touching storyline of Lobang and his mother, who struggles with drug addiction. One night, as his mother goes into a fit of withdrawal, Lobang is forced to break out of Tekong. He then makes the heart-wrenching decision to turn his mother into the police in order to save his sister.
Back at camp, the whole platoon is brought before the encik to be held to account for this dangerous safety breach.
“How do we choose between doing the right things, and doing things right?” asks the encik.
Astonishingly, this scene ends with the encik admitting to his own mistake of not understanding Lobang’s family situation and giving himself 100 push-ups as punishment. This inspires the rest of the platoon to follow his example.
Leaders showing accountability? This really is the alternate timeline.
Ah Boys to Men 4 (2017): Joking Only One. Women Cannot Take a Joke Meh?
By 2017, the culmination of three instalments and half a decade of character development finds the ah boys mature into fully-fledged uncles, as they sluggishly report for their fourth round of reservist duties — this time to the armoured division.
When the movie first came out, a RICE contributor dubbed Ah Boys to Men 4 ‘pure sexist trash’. I disagree. The most egregious examples of sexism actually took place in the first two instalments. By the fourth instalment, the franchise is, on the contrary, attempting to pander to the increasingly lucrative trend of female empowerment.
Unfortunately, this attempt fails miserably.
The introduction of the first real female character in Lieutenant Zhang Xinyi, played by Apple Chan, arguably sets womens’ rights in Singapore back another generation.
It’s not the actresses’ fault. For all the controversy her character generated, Apple Chan is given almost nothing to work with. Her defining personality trait is that of a hardass with no sense of humour, and her hobbies include making the reservists write lines as punishment.
That said, as misogyny goes, it’s pretty toothless stuff compared to previous iterations. The entire cast and production feels tired, sad and low energy.
Sure, there’s a confrontation between IP Man and Apple Chan, where the familiar refrain of ‘can’t women take a joke?’ is trotted out. But even this movie is self-aware enough to have the other characters call IP Man out for sexual harassment.
The bigger problem is that despite all the hullabaloo about a female ‘lead’, Apple Chan’s character is still just being used as a prop — except now she’s a prop in the foreground instead of the background. Having her beat up IP Man is supposed to be one small step for all womankind, before the movie takes three giant leaps backward when the screenwriters awkwardly pair her up with Second Sergeant Alex Ong (played by Tosh Zhang) by the end of the movie.
The writer / director even had to work Apple Chan’s mouth like a puppet for a final time with this cringey piece of dialogue:
“The power of brotherhood is really amazing. I will definitely want to learn more from you guys.”
Thanks Jack. Very nice.
Can someone explain why this is the last shot of Ah Boys to Men 4? Why is Singapore burning down? Is it a metaphor? Like…the true enemy was inside of us all along? I’m genuinely lost and concerned.
Together We Will Chiong. On and on and on.
Once you remove the bad CGI and outlandish plot developments, Ah Boys to Men is less a slapstick comedy and more a cultural record of the times. Its primary value lies in documenting the shifting cultural priorities from 2012 to 2017, from open misogyny to insincere pandering to women’s rights.
Like the franchise, it’s a bit pathetic to call this progress, but one can’t deny that for the past decade, ‘socially conservative’ Singapore has been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era.
Arguably, the government’s support for Ah Boys has less to do with outright sexism so much as risk aversion and political expediency; it seems that the authorities always have a knack for following the prevailing wisdom of the times, even if it means hitching their wagons to declining cultural and social trends.
Maybe what Jack Neo has really taught us is that you can’t lead a country based on the nostalgia of out-of-touch uncles, where NS was always ‘so much tougher’ back in their day and gender roles were easier to understand.
After all, NS was never just about national security. According to LKY, it is also about building a national and political consciousness. While I take umbrage at always placing the blame on the authorities, we already have a few recent examples of how SAF culture might bleed into the civil service or corporate boardroom — with negative social consequences.
So instead of always rushing to wait and waiting to rush, perhaps some initiative and leadership are in order. Perhaps it’s time to actually chart a course for the type of society Singapore wants for the future, instead of just acquiescing to the prevailing winds of the times.