The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998)

Country: Singapore
Language: English
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Philip Lim
Starring: Melody Chen, Caleb Goh, Lim Hwee Sze, Chong Chee Kin, Steven Lim, Randall Tan

Theme: Culture

Ratings: 7.0/10

The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998) is a satire of the Singapore junior college education system, and is a film adaptation of the 1988 Adrian Tan bestseller, The Teenage Textbook. It takes a light-hearted look into the lives of four students as they begin their junior college education. Such prevalent references to the book are present throughout the movie, that is split into various chapters that all take a cue from the original book. For instance, the movie opens with a quote from the book, “Teenagers love movies that start with good music” (00:00), before mocking the schizophrenic, confused state of wearing secondary school uniforms to their junior colleges during the first three months of school. With the film centered upon particularly the first three months of junior college years, the movie takes on a very Singaporean point of view, as it broaches upon topics like boy-girl relationships, family relations, money, materialism, etc.

It is worth noting that the film was well-received critically and managed to top the Singapore box office at a point of time, though given the trends of films like that it most likely rode on the initial popularity of the best-selling book. The film is stylistically rich, with many comedic techniques used throughout the film. The stereotypical “love at first sight” glance is paired with romantic music at 4:24, and at 5:06 the tacky mood for the comedy is set with the announcements over the school PA system for the students to “proceed your way into the school hall”, from a principal that graduated with a pHd from Calcutta. Letters drop off from the school signage at random – the original being PAYA LEBAR JUNIOR COLLEGE, and instances include “PAY” to form “A LEBAR JUNIOR COLLEGE”, and other permutations to form phrases like “PAY BAR UNCLE” and even “EAR JUICE”, a form of witty cynicism amid wordplay that is common throughout the film. For instance, “pimple” is defined as “a minor eruption of pus on the surface of the skin”, or “the end of the world”.

The characters are plain stereotypical caricatures, but these caricatures must have been real at one point of time for them to become stereotypes, and one should be able to draw reference from them. Espoused character types include the geeky female, the nerdy male, the rich kid, the suave flirt, the hunky bookworm and the beauty. the Mui Ee (Melody Chen) comes of age with the help of her best friend Sissy Song (Lim Hwee Sze) as she picks up skills like party etiquette and dating on Valentine’s Day, though not without complaints such as “How can you be so enthusiastic and still get to a party two hours late?” (11:51). She falls for the school flirt, before settling for a more down-to-earth relationship with the geeky but reliable Chong Gay (Caleb Ng).

A gripe is the numerous filler shots used to beef up the length of the movie, and these senseless shots that capture driving scenes to random local sites like Orchard, Simei and Holland Village are grating and redundant. It is a convenient means for the audience to hear the (not so) witty jokes over the radio (with 98.7FM being on air), but this does not serve to value-add to the scene at any bit. There does not seem to be any scene in particular that really needs to take place in these areas, the setting mostly ambiguous HDB flats, for instance.

Since the release of The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998), similar films have been few and far between. Eating Air (1999) attempts to blend comic elements of anime manga but to not much success, and the sociological movies after that all tended towards a more serious tone (with the exception of Jack Neo films that resort to jokes on a more realistic scale rather than the stylistic exaggeration seen in these films).

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