Director: Royston Tan
The skills of the sound recordist are often the least celebrated aspects of cinema, whether that be capturing dialogue or the wider incidental soundscape. In a predominantly visual medium, sound is something we almost take for granted, only truly noticing its absence rather than actively appreciating its presence. Royston Tan’s 24 is a celebration of the boom operator, placing him in shot and forcing the audience to notice his contribution.
Two men are having vigorous sex and, prudishness aside, in cinematic terms it goes on for a long time Suddenly you notice the boom operator in shot holing his recording device above the couple. What does this tell us about the lovers – are they actors making a film, porn stars or a real couple as unaware of the man capturing their efforts as they appear to be? We never know and Tan moves to a quiet woodland scene, it is peaceful and relaxing, a stark contrast to the previous scene but a buzzing noise starts to disrupt the serenity and plumes of smoke obscure the view. And we move on again, each time the unknown technician visibly recording sounds in 24 locations, but who is he and is there a narrative to follow?
Tan’s film breaks down the boundaries between documentary and fiction, capturing varied sequences, some of which take place in rational, external environments where the focus is on the sounds these places generate, including the stillness of a flower strewn lake as our hero sits in a boat or the dark dripping soundscape of a sewer tunnel as it meets the outside world. Each of these places is atmospheric and rich in complex noises.
The second groups of sounds come from deliberately false locations, from theatrical and musical productions in which the boom operator almost envelops himself, sometime all but concealed on a colourful stage filled with performances, and at others standing out against the traditional stories in his jarringly modern black outfit. There is a more deliberate contrast in these sections that Tan is looking to draw attention to the strange falsity of these scenarios, creating a tone that is important to the film’s eventual conclusion.
The final group captures conversations between different groups of people that is seemingly random in nature but starts to form a pattern across the film that draws the strands together as they become more personal in approach until a couple of stark concluding scene make sense of our silent recordist and his deliberate visibility.
At 75-minutes, it takes a while for the pieces of 24 to fall into place and Tan is in no hurry to unveil his concept. The star’s very occasional reaction to the action and the subject he records adds some variety that begins to trace a very different relationship between this man and the world he captures, but Tan’s slow pace and amorphous concept won’t be for everyone.
24 is showing at the Queer East Film Festival 2022 on the 25 May.