* This review is based on the first two episodes of Invisible Stories
When you ask a foreigner about the first things they think about when it comes to Singapore, they’d probably say: Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay or well… you can’t chew gum.
But when you ask Singaporeans about this tiny island we call home, we’ll say: good and cheap hawker food, the Teh C (tea with condensed milk) we order from the drink-store uncle on our way to work or how tight-knit our communities are.
The everyday Singaporean doesn’t party on rooftops till late or frolic amongst exotic flora. We take the bus to work, go about our day and go home. It may seem mundane but director and writer of HBO’s Invisible Stories, Ler JiYuan’s takes authentic Singaporean stories and turn them into something interesting and revealing about the people we sit beside on busses, take the lift with or walk past at the local market. Every character in Invisible Stories has a story kept in the dark by local and international media. With each episode featuring its own plot and characters, Ler JiYuan brings so many hidden stories into the light.
It’s dawn time at the fictional estate of ‘Sungei Merah’. People are asleep but a ruckus comes from one of the units. Here, the viewers are introduced to the main characters of the first episode – Lian (Golden Horse winner Yeo Yann Yann) and Brian (Devin Pan).
Lian is a single mother to Brian, her 19-year-old son with autism. Brian displays aggressive behaviours during meltdowns. He’d hit himself, throw things around and would sometimes get physically aggressive with his mother – biting her, pushing her and the likes. It gets intense and it is not long until services are at the door, knocking loudly and calling out for Lian. We’re not aware of how long Brian’s meltdowns are but when Lian opens the door, a bright white light shines in. Outside her door, nosey neighbours gather and complain about the inability to sleep due to the noise. Lian tells the welfare workers and neighbours to buzz off before shutting the door. They live in a tiny house and one that is barely furnished too. Lian calms her son down and gets ready for work.
It was barely a 5-minute scene, but the opening was enough for viewers to get familiar with Lian and Brian and their socioeconomic status. Viewers then follow Lian to work and are made aware of the emotional and mental challenges she faces as a caretaker and breadwinner of the family.
Throughout the episode, we see flashbacks of memories she’s had with Brian as a child and her complicated relationship with her baby daddy. And not long later, we see Brian have a major public breakdown at the local market.
Brian’s public breakdown is one scene that viewers should keep in mind as its the one common thread in the entire series apart from the fact that the characters all live in Sungei Merah. Actor Devin Pan has never played the role of a person with special needs, but he carried out Brian’s character really well, particularly in this scene. Devin didn’t hold back one bit. He’d learnt and observed persons with autism during filming and was able to replicate some of the behaviours on set.
Episode 1 was a rollercoaster ride and at the end of it, we’re left feeling exhausted just from watching. It’s a touching story about motherhood, caregiving and is highly relevant given how every 1 in 150 children in Singapore has autism, a higher rate than the World Health Organisation’s global figure of one in 160 children.
But the next episode has a totally different vibe from the first one. It’s a spookier, scarier, supernatural take on the life of Chuan (Wang YuQing). Chuan is a taxi driver by day and a spiritual medium at night. Residents would queue up along the corridor of his home to ask for blessings, cure sicknesses and even ask for lucky lottery numbers.
Whilst Chuan may have some answers to questions and the ability to heal people, he can’t seem to fix himself. Chuan recently suffered the loss of his wife and spends his free time downing alcohol to numb his pain away. But despite his alcoholism, Chuan actively tries to take care of his teenage son. He’s toughing it out and doesn’t seek sympathy whilst facing these struggles – and as viewers, we can’t help but feel for him.
In the day, Chuan drives passengers all around Singapore. And at night he gets dressed in a garb of sorts and channels himself into one of the gods during the ritual. We see the things real-life mediums do – such as slicing off his own tongue, stabbing and whipping himself – it’s gore at its finest.
But the booming business amidst the mourning takes a toll on Chuan and his son. And to make matters worse, supernatural forces come into play. You’re never quite sure if it’s fiction or reality, but viewers are treated with a couple of hair raising moments. While the episode is more focused on family and cultural traditions, the style in which the episode was shot was similar to that of a horror film or show. Coloured gels of red and blue were used and blurry camera focus every now and then made our hearts quicken. Effective use of gore is shown upfront on screen and we can’t help but flinch in discomfort and shift in our seats.
Episode 2 again, featured a breakdown scene in the local market. Who’s? Well, you’ll have to watch to find out.
Whilst we only managed to watch the first two episodes of Invisible Stories, there’s no way of explaining how excited we are to watch the other episodes. The series feels and looks authentic and it is honestly absolutely refreshing to hear Singlish accents and dialect on the big screen.
Whilst we have no major issues with portraying Singapore as a metropolitan and Westernised city (because truth is, that is what we’ve become), seeing the slower and cultured Singapore that we’ve grown up experiencing be represented and appreciated on the big screen is very touching. It’s nostalgic, and maybe even educational. Maybe one day when tourists talk about Singapore, they would no longer think about how we spent S$8 million dollars to build hotels that look like a deck of cards. Instead, they’ll talk about how our local market centres are bustling with life and how the drinks we serve at hawker centres are a tad too sweet but unforgettable. That the grumpy uncle you see from a distance would flash you a toothless smile when you pass by. Because that’s the Singapore we know. The Singapore we love.
Ler teased us and revealed that episode 3 shares a tale of friendship between three Thai sex workers, while episode 5 is a love story between a Bangladeshi construction worker and an Indonesian domestic helper. Other episodes include a man’s journey of self-discovery in episode 4 and a teenager who attempts to reconstruct her own version of reality on social media.
Invisible Stories is set to premiere on HBO Asia and HBO GO on 5 January 2020. Bet we’d be the first ones to catch it.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Stories from Singapore, in its truest, most authentic form. This one, I like.
Story - 8/10
Direction - 8/10
Characterisation - 8/10
Geek Satisfaction - 8/10