"Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." -- Sanford Meisner


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Friday, March 23, 2012

Hentak Kaki

Hentak Kaki
A Puttnam School of Film, College of the Arts Production, Directed by James Khoo
Winner of the 24th Singapore International Film Festival (2011) 
Silver Screen Awards for the Best Short Film. 
With hindsight, "Hentak Kaki" exhibited the hallmarks of a winner from the beginning. I usually don't speak from hindsight, but as a newbie, I didn't know what to expect and couldn't do any better. Though, newbies do have their strength, in that they are perpetually curious and willing to try new things, not bounded by tradition, habits or conventional thinking.

This film was previously called, "When the Cold Wind Blows". I like the title as it gives a certain emotional undertone of what to expect. Subsequently, the title was changed to "Hentak Kaki", which literally, 'hentak' means 'shock' and 'kaki' means 'leg'. But together, "hentak kaki" does not compound to 'shock leg', but rather, "marching on the spot" - a metaphor that describes someone who has reached a stagnant point in his career. This is what happened when the lead character, Warrant Officer Lee Teck Hong, faced with his injured knee, was re-assigned to a desk job as a military counsellor, where he faced up with long time friend and then detainee Raj.

During audition, James felt that my spoken English was too polished to play the role of a warrant officer, since warrant officers are better known for their screaming out loud in clunky chunks rather than their crisp diction. While it is flattering to be complimented for good English, Jame's comment also felt like cold wind blown over my ears as I really wanted the role. Did I hear it right? "My English too polished?" It was akin to saying that I was not suited for a role because I was too good looking! :) Anyway, I managed to convince him that I will be able to fake it until I make it, and so we worked to clip and chip my pronunciations, added a few 'lahs' here and there, to create the accent of a seasoned warrant officer.

This adjustment in diction was mild in comparison to what was to come, which was the tedious crafting of the dialogue. We localised the English, went too far on that, then moderated it back, added some army speak, and then, finally we got it! An example of some of the transformations was:

Original sentence:  "I am very surprised!".
1st transformation: "I lagi surprise!"
Final transformation: "I lagi more surprise!"

Note: 'Lagi' means 'more' in Malay.

We ended up with a broken grammar and a tautology, but it sounded like music to our ears. I think I became so congenial with, that it took me a few days to get off the lingo and attitude. Besides the lingo, the physical aspects of the character stuck in me so much that curiously I felt the pain on my right knee for a few days after the shoot. Perhaps a kind of 'shock leg'?  :)

Another of Jame's hat trick was to arrange for Richard Muru (who played 'Raj')  and me to meet to check that there was chemistry. I learned later that this is something film schools teach, though it is a practice I rarely see executed. Eventually, it was this chemistry that played a big part in getting the story flowing. The scene of Raj so desperately sincere in seeking to help the distraught WO Lee to get his life together again, still gives me the chills each time I watch it. Without the splendid performance of Richard, I would not be able to respond likewise and will definitely not win the 3rd Singapore Short Film Awards, Best Performance Award subsequently.

In film production, there are always many urgent things that need doing, so it was commendable that James chose to have the important stuff out of the way right from the beginning. He even brought the editor, Alicia Lim, to watch our rehearsals to make sure that the scenes are eventually editable.

Here is the video on "Discover the Work Behind the Work: Hentak Kaki":

And the Official Trailer:

The film is well received in Singapore, judging from the response of the audience during the screenings. I think the audience resonates with the army lingo and witty dialogue. However, precisely because of its well crafted localisation, I suspect that the film may not be one that can travel well, as the audience need to understand the deeper sub-text in order to empathise fully. That said, there must be millions of 'Warrant Officer Lees' all over the world, having reached their point of career stagnation and fear the leaving of their comfort zones. This I believe, is a universal trait and a common situation for many people across national boundaries and cultures.

A friend of mine who re-trains older workers into new careers suggested that we sell this film to the work development authorities to encourage older workers in mid life crisis to get on with their life and follow their heart.

The final scene of Raj meeting up with WO Lee.
I tested the film with an American soldier by asking him to watch it with the subtitles. The result was surprising as  not only did he understand the story, but sufficiently so to be touched by it, as he had seen real life characters very alike WO Lee and Raj in the US Army.

Director James Khoo and myself at the premiere of "Hentak Kaki"
One criticism that I have of "Hentak Kaki" is that it would have been better if there was a 'curved ball' thrown in towards the end of the story. This will enable the story to leave with a bang and inspire the audience to ponder further, or rather it will make them, "lagi more surprise"! :)

The dusty and uncomfortable location of the disused CID building, though unintended,
helped in making the actors look so frustrated and angry. :)
Some quirks:

  1. That Richard Muru who is of Indian descent actually speaks the Southern Chinese dialect of Hokkien better than James Khoo who is a Singaporean Chinese. This is a common trait among younger Singaporeans who now do not speak dialects.
  2. That the army culture that Richard and I went through, is quite different from the one that James had gone through many years later. For instance, we had to remind James that in the army there is no 'please' and 'thank you', because everything is duty bound. But this is the old army culture.

Post Scriptum

You can now watch the full 12-minute film on vimeo. Click here.


  1. Well written insight of the movie.

  2. Thank you for doing this movie. Very Singaporean, truly local. Great acting! "I aso like you. Talk too like angmoh." But I am totally Singaporean and really appreciated the acting. I think the script and direction captured how difficult it was for a life-long army man to apprehend his fear of the unknown, the crucial need of a person for true friendship, and the spontaneity that our society lacks (which inhibits the realizing of dreams).

  3. @Little Pingan: Thank you for reading this blog post. Yes spontaneity is lacking in our society. Part of the progressive package for material wealth! :)

  4. A very good informative review of a very good film. Well acted. Touching and inspiring. Should resonate with anyone who has faced challenges in life. Not just those who are/have been in the armed forces. No matter how daunting and scary the situation, you won't know if you don't try. Where there's life there's hope and opportunity.

  5. A very good informative review of a very good film. Well acted. Touching and inspiring. Should resonate with anyone who has faced challenges in life. Not just those who are/have been in the armed forces. No matter how daunting and scary the situation, you won't know if you don't try. Where there's life there's hope and opportunity.