by Roy Lee
Anyone who takes a first look at Boo Junfeng’s Keluar Baris (2007) would immediately assume that this Singaporean short film is merely about a boy’s anxiety over his pending National Service enlistment. However, anyone who has read and absorbed the work of the prominent queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would probably have a radically different interpretation of it. In her 1993 book, Tendencies, Sedgwick asserts that institutions often align their principles neatly, creating a strict unified ideology which, in turn, produces silent presumptions about our identity. Social structures simplify reality and, in turn, simplify our visions of ourselves. In an attempt to vitiate the rigidity of such systems, Sedgwick proposes a perverse reading of texts, a reading that goes against the grain, that imbues these systems with fascination in order to disengage us from their enforced rigor. She asks us to uncover the queer nuances embedded in texts by unsimplifying them. Seeing “queer” aspects as the “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically,” Sedgewick offers queer readings as alternatives views of our world (with political potential) that are so often neglected or hidden by the heteronormative paradigm.
Queer representations are heavily policed and discouraged across Singapore’s media landscape. In the Censorship Review Committee Report 2010, guidelines on television programming provide clear indications to screen PG13 shows only after 11pm. Programs with any portrayal of queer characters—such as Glee—typically belong in this category and are effectively exiled to a timeslot outside primetime. In film and theatre, homosexual content is routinely classified as “explicit” regardless of the degree of sexual explicitness. Given these national regulations, it is undoubtedly difficult to find images of queer life in any Singaporean media.
However, such overt restrictions do not mean that queer representations do not exist in across Singapore. It simply means that we have to take a closer look to uncover the queer moments in our texts. Filmmakers might find ways to smuggle queer meanings into their art. Texts could also gain new connotations over time. It is thus vital to review the media to search for queer meanings hidden in them. The works of Boo Junfeng, and Keluar Baris in particular, offer moments that prompt our engagement with Sedgwick’s charge for a queer reading because they resist simplifying our social structures and our senses of ourselves.
Keluar Baris presents opportunities for readings that could radically subvert a conventional default heteronormative interpretation of it and provides a guide for reconsidering our approach to other works by Boo Junfeng and other Singaporean artists.
The film follows the story of an eighteen year-old boy who returns to Singapore from Spain to serve his National Service (NS). NS is a mandatory conscription program every Singaporean male has to go through for 22 to 24 months and then remain on reserve for until he is 40 or 50 years old, depending upon rank. Throughout the film, the recruit seems particularly melancholic. Characters around him are quick to explain his gloom as an anxiety towards enlistment, and these explanations may hold some validity. However, there are gaps and dissonances throughout the film that suggest he could also be suffering from a certain homosexual anxiety and desire that continue to trouble him.
“Keluar Baris” is Malay for homecoming. The return home, back to one’s family would often be regarded as a cheerful event. Yet he seems to appear more displeased about keluar baris. Could it be the obvious lack of familial warmth? Or the pending enlistment that every single person in the film can’t seem to stop mentioning? Yet, even as these possibilities may obtain, a key instant suggests that the boy’s melancholy might actually stem from the possible separation from a likely gay relationship from overseas. While the boy sits in his room browsing pictures on his computer, a portrait of a young male Spaniard flashes across the screen. It could be brushed off as a casual perusal of his travel photos, but the mise-en-scène bends things. The shot is framed by the recruit’s shoulder, which invites an erotic gaze at the back of his neck and over his arm. As he clicks through the photos, the camera lingers for a full second when he reaches the photo of the Spanish boy, suggesting the heightened importance of this person. The mild sexual tension created by the relation between the recruit’s body and the foreign portrait builds. Then, it is quickly dissipated when the recruit’s father steps into the room. The gay sensibility of this scene is returned to the heteronormative framework of the straight household.
The film’s excess drama around enlistment could be construed as a view of conscription as the seizure of one’s personal liberty by the state, in general. Yet, it could also refer to a more specific situation. It is widely known and accepted that queer soldiers are severely marginalised within Singapore’s military. Soldiers who openly declare their homosexuality or present themselves as queer are required to register as “302.” They would subsequently be banned from command schools and combat vocations. This discriminatory practice is normalised in the armed forces and Singapore. Thus, the boy’s misery when he sees two uniformed enlistees on the bus could be more than just his apprehension towards enlistment. It could be an invocation of his distress over being discriminated against. He could be looking at his own fear of being forced out of the closet or the fear of being forced to stay in.
The film also sets up a relation between Spain and Singapore, between a land of longing and a land of pragmatic demands. In the closing scene, the boy looks out the window and we see a plane flying into the distance. This seems rather peculiar as it hints of his desire to leave, even though he just returned. Welded with the soundtrack of piano tinkling throughout the film, his melancholy over being “home” becomes an opening for queer interpretation. Spain legalised same-sex marriage in 2005. Singapore retains the Penal Code Section 377A, which criminalises sex between men. Spain symbolises a queer time and place for this boy. Singapore represents a present home tied to heteronormative simplification and rationalization.
Boo’s skilful insertion of Spain as the boy’s gay sanctuary could go unnoticed by spectators, but on a closer reading, such an understanding seems logical and plausible. These gaps in the film twist and bend the heteronormative reading that has dominated our way of viewing films. Sedgwick’s proposal for a queer reading of texts hence disarticulates and disengages from the usual normative methods of consuming art straight. It is a call to “run against the grain” and embrace the multitude of possibilities spread throughout queer.