04 June 2012

Film review: I Not Stupid (2002), by Jack Neo, ****


Three kids in Singapore did not make it to the top of their class and attend EM3, the stream for the not best and not brightest. They have to contend with pressure from their teachers on the one hand and their parents on the other. They also get bullied by their peers. In the end, they prove to be smarter than expected...

You can read more in English and Chinese in the official website of the film and of its sequel, "I not stupid too".

This highly successful film can be read at different levels. It may seem at first naive and the acting may look poor, artificial, unnatural. In fact the characters are caricatures of Singapore's people, government and business, and these are very well represented by the actor's sometimes exaggerated gestures and expressions.

First, is is a film about parents who know all and kids who are not allowed to make up their own mind, or butter their own toast for that matter. Parents who decide all and thus delay the growing up of their kids, who remain unnecessarily dependent on them for far too long. This is certainly true in many a country, not just in Singapore, I see it all the time in my own Italy.

Second, it is an indictement of some aspects of the SIngaporean educational system, which places a lot of emphasis on English and math at the expense of other cultural subjects: the movie refers to the Chinese language but it might just as well have been Tamil or Malay, or history or art for that matter.

Third, it is all too easy to see the rich patronizing mother as being a personification of the Singapore government, who does everything for the good of her children while leaving them precious little leeway to grow up and mature as individuals. The children react differently, but some are just as happy to delegate all responsibility to the government as long as they get material satisfaction in their daily lives.

Fourth, the film exposes an alleged excessive Singaporean propensity to tap foreign talent at all costs, often at the expense of local brainpower.

Finally, the film dwelves in the social and human dimension of the Singaporean business environment, with its fierce and never ending competition against regional rivals such as Taiwan.

All in all a great film to get an insight into Singaporean society as it grows into a mature advanced economy and begins to wake up to its rights. Given its thinly veiled criticism of the government, it is a (pleasant) surprise that director Jack Neo got this work past Singaporean censors.

You can read more reviews of this film here. You can see excerpts from the film on this YouTube page.

You can get a NTSC DVD here.

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