4:30 Review

Noel Megahey reviews this charming and sensitive portrayal of childhood and loneliness from Singapore director Royston Tan, released by Peccadillo Pictures.

One of the most promising young directors in a region of Asian that is increasingly coming to prominence in the movie world, Singapore filmmaker Royston Tan’s second feature film is again very much focussed on questions of masculinity and youth. In contrast to the provocative shock tactics of his debut 15 however, 4:30 goes for the quieter, more reflective dialogue-light approach similar to fellow Singapore director Eric Khoo (Be With Me), who happens also to be executive producer here, and the film is all the more effective for it.

The approach is particularly appropriate in 4:30 as it is from the perspective not so much of alienated disaffected youth, but from a young boy who has yet to figure out how to get to the next adult stage in his life. His mother away on business in Beijing, 11 year-old Zhang Xiao Wu (Li Yuan) is left sharing the house with a strange Korean lodger (Kim Young-jun) his mother has met, one who works unusual nightshift hours and comes into the house often in a drunken, depressed and even suicidal state. Xiao Wu’s curiosity leads him to record and make observations about the man in a notebook, but the object of his investigations is perhaps not the best role model to show him the way forward.

The time of these few moments when the man and the boy are both in the house together is of course around 4:30 in the morning, a time that director Royston Tan found significant, as the writing of the film was done at this time of the morning during the making of his previous feature 15, the director observing that it was perhaps the loneliest time of the night. Loneliness is certainly what 4:30 is about, and the film just as effectively finds expression for this loneliness in a variety of original ways.

There’s consequently little of a conventional narrative drive in the film, but there is a clear structure that progresses the film and its themes, and it’s through the repetition of the daily routine of Xiao Wu, from his disruption of a Tai Chi exercise class, his troubled day in school, his pot-noodle evening dinner and his night-time 4:30am explorations of his Korean guest’s bedroom. The patterns of life are then appropriately enough the structure of the film and its progression is through how the boy handles the issues as a part of the growing up process.

Even here though, there is little conventional in the depiction of events, since it is largely seen from the perspective of a young boy who doesn’t really understand the workings of the adult world and has created his own surreal view of it in his own mind and in his notebooks, aided in part possibly by an addiction to what apparently is a strong cough medicine. There is no real contact then between the man and the boy – the man works nightshifts, comes home in the dark and is usually drunk, while the boy is left to his own devices during the day around the house and at school. But for Xiao Wu’s 4:30am investigations of the comatose man, their paths hardly cross when both are in a conscious and lucid state. Yet, in search of someone to look up to, the young boy holds this man up as the model of something he imagines a father should be and tries to emulate him and look after him as best as he can. The Korean man is certainly just as lonely as Xiao Wu, and you might expect this common situation to forge some connection between them and through this find the answer to what is missing in their lives, but nothing as conventional and straightforward as that happens in 4:30.

Yet, at the same time, director Royston Tan manages to convey perfectly and realistically this confusing period of childhood with a great deal of accuracy and sensitivity. Realistically doesn’t necessarily mean naturalistically, and Tan uses light, colour and a fabulous Hualampong Riddim score (Last Life In The Universe) to capture the indefinable experience of a young boy seeking to find some tangible evidence of the nature of shared moments and emotions that will make the bizarre, funny, absurd and sometimes surreal notion of life in some way comprehensible.


4:30 is released in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures. Although the DVD case states that the film is DVD-5, the disc itself is dual-layer, however only one half of the capacity is used, so to all intents and purposes it is indeed single-layer. The DVD is in PAL format, and although the cover indicates Region 2 encoding, the disc is actually region-free.

The transfer here is about as good as you would see on most DVD transfers from Singapore and Thailand, which means it’s not perfect, but not bad either. The transfer is progressive and anamorphic at a ratio of 1.78:1, slightly windowboxed. The tone tends towards dark and contrasty, the image looking a little soft and colours seemingly slightly out with a green/blue tint. Some minor flickering can be detected occasionally in backgrounds and there are one or two small flecks on the print, but the transfer remains relatively stable with no serious issues, showing sufficient detail in even the dark interior scenes.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is rather basic. Dialogue however is clear and the music score comes across well, but there is no great dynamic in tone or stereo separation.

English subtitles are fixed on the transfer, but are white and clearly readable. There are no real problems with translation or grammar – I only noticed one typo early in the film – but then there is very little dialogue spoken during the film, and most of what is spoken is in English, and this is subtitled in English also.

In addition to the numerous trailers that Peccadillo always provide to promote their other material – which I personally find very helpful since these are films you are unlikely to come across much information about elsewhere – the main extra feature here is a short EPK style Making Of (9:13) which covers how the film came to be written and made despite the difficulties of having a low, with interview snippets and commentary by the director, producer and young lead actor, Li Yuan. A Picture Gallery (3:51) of around 50 production stills is also included.

One of the brightest young directors of Singapore filmmaking, Royston Tan’s 4:30 works on a sensitive, gentle and charming register that will appeal to fans of Last Life In The Universe and Be With Me (a film incidentally that Royston Tan acts in). It’s light on dialogue and indeed narrative, it moves along relatively slowly without much really seeming to happen, but it has an idiosyncratic charm of its own that finds an entertaining and original way through the perspective of a young boy to express the complications between lonely characters struggling to communicate with other people and find their place in the world. The DVD release from Peccadillo Pictures is basic and not without minor flaws, but conveys the essential qualities of the film well.


Updated: Apr 11, 2009

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