“I love being with them, but I hate where they take me. Same for all of us.”
When Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942, 50,000 Allied soldiers became prisoners of war. A quarter of them were Australian. Many of the prisoners were marched to Changi Peninsula at the eastern end of the island of Singapore where they would be incarcerated in what had formerly been a British army barracks. Until the end of the war three and a half years later, the POWs existed in barbarous conditions. Many were evacuated for a time to work on the infamous Thai-Burma railway (immortalized in The Bridge on the River Kwai) and those that survived that ordeal were then returned to Changi until the war’s end.
A 2001 six-episode Australian television miniseries called Changi has used the events in the Changi POW camp as inspiration for a dramatization of the survival of six Australian soldiers in the camp. BFS Video now makes Changi available on DVD in a two-disc box set.
David, Gordon, Bill, Curley, Eddie, and Tom are young Australians who eagerly enlist as soldiers, only to find themselves imprisoned in Changi prison camp shortly after first seeing action. Each must suffer through different torments during the course of the three and a half years, and each finds that it is the shared sense of comradeship (or mateship) along with the ability to find humour in the midst of horror that helps to see them through.
The six agree to meet after the war every nine years. After 45 years, the next reunion draws near, bringing both joy at the prospect of seeing mates again, but also torment as memories of the past are rekindled.
The experiences of prisoners of war have been the subject of many films and television programs over the years, ranging from the ridiculous (Victory , Hogan’s Heroes) to the sublime (La grande illusion , The Colditz Story , The Great Escape ). The latest entry into the genre is Changi, and it fits most definitely at the sublime end of the scale. This is one of the finest portraits of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity that I have seen. The success of the film lies not just in documenting how the individual trials of the past are overcome, but also in showing how the passage of time after the war is shaped by that past so that present and past become almost one.
Writer John Doyle’s script is a marvel. We come to know each of the six main characters intimately, both as young men and old. Despite the equality of their shared Changi experience, their post-war lives have gone in different directions and led them all to distinctly different ends in terms of home, family, and economic station. They all feel like real people with recognizable faults and virtues. The film accomplishes this through a complex but ultimately easy-to-follow mix of present-day and past scenes that is both compelling and poignant. The experience is a deeply emotional one for the men, and for the viewer.
Whoever was ultimately responsible for the casting deserves a great deal of credit. The six actors playing the young soldiers are all very fine indeed. Even better, the six actors chosen to play the young men in their old age fit them to perfection. I imagine most North American viewers will be seeing most of these players for the first time, but if the quality of their work is any indication, it will not be the last. It’s not really possible to single out one or two of the younger actors from the others; all (Matthew Newton, Anthony Hayes, Leon Ford, Mark Priestley, Stephen Curry, Matthew Whittet) are so thoroughly believable. Their screen experience ranges from 2 to 10 years and most have been active on television and on the stage as well. The same is true of the older sextet (Charles Tingwell, Frank Wilson, Terry Norris, Slim De Grey, Bill Kerr, Desmond Kelly). There is a wealth of Australian acting talent on display with these fellows — not the accumulated 500 years that director Kate Woods suggests, but certainly a major chunk of it. All would be very familiar faces to Australian audiences, but most have also had important parts in feature films that have had international audiences — titles such as Breaker Morant, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Lighthorsemen, and Gallipoli. One of them at least — Slim De Grey — brought a unique perspective to Changi, having actually himself been incarcerated in the prison camp during the war.
Director Kate Woods has had 15 years of experience in Australian film and television, and it shows. She gets terrific performances out of all the actors, and she cuts expertly between the past and present story lines. The episodes all move along briskly with no resorting to unnecessary camera gymnastics. Shots are always well-framed and a nice blend of distance and close-up shots is utilized.
BFS Video’s two-disc DVD presentation is a fairly worthy effort. The first disc contains three episodes (each 58 minutes long) and a collection of helpful supplements; the second disc contains the last three episodes. A 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is provided. Daytime scenes are very good — generally crisp and bright with minimal edge effects. Night scenes are often a problem, however, with excessive video noise and grain reducing detail to almost zero at times. Still, none of it will detract from your enjoyment of this film. A serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is provided that delivers the dialogue driven script quite clearly. The score, which consists of numerous standards of the era, is pleasantly rendered. It lacks any real expansive feeling, but that is appropriate given the intimate nature of much of the material. No English subtitles are provided.
The supplements kick off with three short featurettes totaling ten minutes in length that provide some behind the scenes information by way of interesting comments from director Kate Woods, writer John Doyle, and several of the cast members. An extensive set of text notes then describes the production and design aspects of the film. Another set of notes provides the historical facts about Changi POW camp, and a third set provides some brief true stories of life in the camp. Twenty cast and crew biographies/selected filmographies and a photo gallery of some two dozen images round out the package. Although a lot of this is passively-presented information, the resulting effect of the package is to provide quite a thorough overall background to the film.
Changi was a series new to me and a pleasant surprise indeed. The success of Australian films internationally in recent years looks likely to continue if the talent responsible for Changi is any indication. An interesting piece of history well-dramatized, filmed with assurance, and acted with assurance and love. BFS Video’s DVD presentation isn’t perfect by any means, but it is well enough done to allow the film to shine. Highly recommended.