In the opening scene of 4:30, Royston Tan’s 2005 feature, a boy wearing little more than a white vest and shorts sits alone on a stairwell at night, cradling a CD player in his lap. The sense of heat and humidity is palpable, while the lyrics we hear on the soundtrack set the tone for the rest of the film: ‘sadness and sorrow surround me… everyday I’m praying for the loneliness to be chased away’.
Fans of Tan’s previous movie, 15 – a stylised, violent look at teenage gangs in the Singapore suburbs – may be surprised by the direction that the filmmaker took for his follow-up feature. Gone are the video game aesthetics, the frenetic pacing, jump cuts and heavy use of distorted angles; Tan instead uses long scenes, single takes and carefully composed cinematography to convey the powerful sense of emotional distance that pervades this near-wordless film. The result is a haunting meditation on solitude that is at times achingly heartbreaking to watch.
Eleven-year-old Xiao Wu (played by the impressive Xiao Liu Wan) has been left behind in his Singapore home with a Korean relative (Kim Young-jun), while his mother is in Beijing on a seemingly endless business trip. On the cusp of adolescence, Xiao Wu is fascinated by his depressed, suicidal uncle. Every morning, the boy’s alarm goes off at 4:30 (the loneliest hour, according to Tan), and every morning he prowls around his uncle’s room, spying on him while he sleeps sprawled across his bed. Wu fantasises about having a father figure, but unable to speak the same language, his wordless overtures go mostly unnoticed in the face of his uncle’s overwhelming, mysterious sorrow. Gradually, the boy’s playfulness is eroded, leaving him immersed in his own painful loneliness.
While there are moments of humour throughout the film, Tan’s focus on distance is all-consuming. The formal cinematography emphasises Wu’s sense of alienation, with the nephew and uncle often seen reflected in mirrored surfaces, giving a physical dimension to their solitude. Even the 70s-era furniture and colours (a green hue bathes much of the film) evoke a nostalgia for the past, distancing the film from brash, modern-day Singapore. While 4:30 shares some stylistic and thematic elements with films such as Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), this is a far more accessible and engaging work, thanks in large part to the successful combination of remarkable characters and a style based on long takes.
Tan has teased powerful performances from his two leads, who were mostly kept apart during the making of the film to avoid any real-life intimacy creeping into their on-screen relationship. The emotional depth and intensity embodied by Xiao and Kim, expressed almost entirely in their eyes and body language, make a fairly slight plot compelling. There’s no happy ending: the mother doesn’t return, and in the end Xiao Wu is left completely alone. All he has learnt from his uncle about adulthood is sorrow and loneliness.