A recently deceased boom operator (James Choong) cleaves himself away from the world through sound in Roystan Tan’s strangely moving meditation on mortality, 24. There are of course 24 frames to a second, but there are also 24 hours in a day and a continuous sequence of days that add up to a life much in the same way expanding sequences of 24 frames result in a film. Divided into 24 vignettes most of which find the sound man invisible, darting about capturing diegetic sound of people discussing life and death or else of nature as he takes stock of the world he’s leaving, the film presents a composite mosaic of human existence. “But now we live in separate worlds” a prince from an opera sadly laments as much like the sound man he prepares for eternal exile, vowing to return even as his bereaved family vow that “stories of his life will be remembered”.
In any case, the first place we find the sound man is on the set of a gay porn film, an act of minor provocation against the conservative atmosphere of the Singaporean film industry. He then appears on a rooftop overlooking the city and on to the middle of a verdant forest where he’s later enveloped in mist. His passage seems random and etherial but also with some kind of hidden direction. He picks up fights behind the walls that hint at societal discord while offering silent comfort to those who appear to be in some kind of despair, a young woman performing an emotional dubbing script pleading with her elderly father to remember her much as the sound man hopes someone will remember him.
An affable cemetery caretaker advises him to visit his family, for children soon grow up while two women look for clothes for dead, offerings they can burn to make the afterlife a little more bearable. The sound man records a traditional Chinese opera about a family grieving a son perhaps still unprepared to confront his own before witnessing a poignant scene of a little boy calling out for his father as his distraught mother bathes him. Only the child, the grave digger, and later a mortician to whom the sound man makes his only sound seem to be able to see him. But then isn’t the sound man always invisible to us? His boom entering the frame is greeted with embarrassment, we aren’t supposed to see him but we know he’s there. Without him this world would be silent. His boom brings sound into focus and allows those whose voices are often ignored to be heard. A bemused expression on his face, the sound man rides in a truck full of migrant workers who are also now in a separate world from their families vowing one day to return.
Then again he listens to a trio of men bicker about the rising cost of weddings and childbirth lamenting that everything costs money even life and death, as it seems. He watches as his family prepare to burn offerings for him, arguing with each other as they lay them out, as if they had all gone on a picnic to celebrate a birthday rather than seeking to mark the passing of a man who died too young. Standing in the corner at his own funeral he shakes while silently sobbing as friends and relatives file past his grieving wife. Meanwhile, his former director visits a taoist priest to find out if he’s doing OK in the afterlife, regretting that he never got to invite him to his new house and wondering if he might have visited in the form of a butterfly who flew in shortly after he arrived. The priest rattles his tools and speaks in an incomprehensible language translated by his assistant, the irony being that the sound man is right there only he can’t see him. On his travels the sound man encounters fear and loneliness and pain, but also kindness and tranquility and knows that he was loved and that there are those who will remember him who we never see. A poignant voyage through a life in 24 frames, Royston Tan’s haunting drama casts its deadpan hero on a wandering journey towards an inevitable conclusion leaving him an exile from the world of the living but also an observer of everything it means to be alive in all of its noisy extremities.
24 screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.
Original trailer (dialogue free)