Neo's touch of class
The jester-satirist questions burning issues such
as pressure on schoolkids, pampered Singaporeans and foreign
talent in his latest film, I Not Stupid
THESE days, kids play a huge role in comedian Jack Neo's
His upcoming film, I Not Stupid, is a social commentary
that revolves around primary school students in the EM3
(English Mother-tongue 3) stream. It hits cinemas on Feb 9, in
time for Chinese New Year.
He frets, like any other concerned parent would, over his
three children: Ethel, 11, Regent, seven, and Ritz,
Regent and Ritz were named after hotels. Ethel is in EM2,
and her schoolbus driver calls her affectionately
Neo says with a sigh: 'Now my daughter tells me she hates
Mandarin, and I'm supposed to be in the Chinese entertainment
When Neo, who turned 42 last Thursday, steps out of a
classroom into the Anglo-Chinese Junior School courtyard after
a photography session, schoolboys crowd around, asking for
One bespectacled boy asks: 'Is that your signature? Quite
funny.' Another asks: 'Do you use all your money to buy a
As he walks towards his champagne-gold Mercedes sedan, Neo
breaks into his trademark rapid-fire chortle. 'Of course,' he
With his uncanny ability to sniff out issues relevant to
Singaporeans and satirising them in his films and television
shows, Neo has proven to be a court jester and social
commentator, standing up for HDB heartlanders.
His latest offering, I Not Stupid, is a bold and insightful
look at Singaporean concerns, ranging from EM3 streaming to
the apathetic Singaporean, and it may very well cement his
reputation as a serious filmmaker.
'I see a lot of graduates showing no concern for society at
all,' says Neo, who acts, writes and directs the
'They'll always say 'it's the government's business, not
ours'. So this movie tells you: If you don't want to change or
make a difference, you won't. It's all up to
A $900,000 film produced by Raintree Pictures, the
movie-making arm of MediaCorp Studios, it stars Xiang Yun,
Richard Low and Selena Tan.
CLAN OF SUSPECTS
APART from some youngsters, such as Huang Po Ju, Shawn Lee
and Joshua Ang, the usual suspects from the 'Neo clan' -
comedians Mark Lee, Patricia Mok and Henry Thia - make cameo
The film, shot over 25 days last September, is distributed
by United International Pictures (UIP) and is Raintree
Pictures' seventh film.
It is the second collaboration between Neo and the film
house. The first, Liang Po Po - The Movie (1999), based on the
popular stuttering grandmother character devised by Neo,
grossed over $3 million at the box office.
Neo decided to do a movie about kids after watching the
Iranian film, Children of Heaven (1997) with his wife, Irene,
three years ago. The film tells a touching tale of two
impoverished Iranian siblings sharing a pair of
'My wife and I were holding hands and crying after seeing
the love shared by the children,' he recalls, settling down to
a meal of Hokkien prawn noodles.
'But the children here, unlike those in the film, are
fortunate. So I talked to parents and teachers and found out
that kids here suffer from mental stress. They are worried
about their schoolwork, but don't know how to express
I Not Stupid is actually quite smart.
The film centres on three EM3 students, Kok Pin, Boon Hock
and Terry (Lee, Ang and Huang respectively).
Kok Pin has artistic flair, Boon Hock helps out at his
parents' hawker stall, and Terry is a rich kid who lets his
mother (Tan) make all the decisions for him.
Although from disparate backgrounds, they bond quickly as
they battle against the stigma associated with being EM3
students and strive for better grades.
Unlike their peers in EM2 and EM1, primary school students
in EM3 take simplified Mathematics, English and mother tongue.
They do not need to do Science.
The film's central message is not surprising: Grades are
not indicative of future potential. Indeed, Kok Pin comes in
second in a prestigious children's art competition in the
United States, whereas Boon Hock aces his maths test because
of hard work.
But there are many subtexts to the main
Look beyond the Hokkien utterances and egg gags and you
will see that Terry epitomises the Singaporean citizenry,
pampered by the nanny state and incapable of thinking out of
His mother (Tan) is obviously meant to symbolise the
Government. She hands out gifts to quell dissent and harbours
a firm but well-intentioned belief that she knows what's best
for her kids.
The film also addresses other relevant concerns: The
younger generation's degenerating respect for the Chinese
language, the lionisation of foreign talent by Singaporeans,
and even child suicide.
With such potentially contentious material, it is no wonder
Raintree executives heaved a sigh of relief when the film
passed the censors without any snips and got a PG (Parental
Says Daniel Yun, 43, CEO of Raintree Pictures and executive
producer: 'I Not Stupid is bold, but it doesn't criticise just
for the sake of it. So the boldness is
Adds Neo: 'This film doesn't intend to provide answers. It
encourages people to see things from different perspectives.
For instance, it actually takes a mainland Chinese in the
movie to tell us we have one-tracked minds. Only a foreigner
can tell us that.'
Mr Yun says it is a 'social comedy with a heart', which
will leave audiences satisfied rather than sombre. Says Philip
Cheah, 44, director of the Singapore International Film
Festival, who saw the film: 'My guess is, this film is going
to be a hit.'
Neo has come a long way in the film-making business.
Although renowned as a heavyweight TV variety show host who
made household names out of Liang Po Po and Liang Xi Mei
(female impersonations of a stuttering grandma and a
well-endowed HDB auntie), he has made appearances in regional
films, such as Taiwan's War Dogs (1991).
He even submitted a zany short film called Replacement
Killer to the Singapore Film Festival in 1998 and won the best
But it was his participation in Eric Khoo's
critically-acclaimed 12 Storeys (1997) which made him realise
the potential of the film industry here.
He then scripted Money No Enough. Eager to make headway, he
sold the script to film-maker J.P. Tan for a measly $3,000.
Acting fees for him and his clan - Mok, Lee and Thia -
amounted to $10,000. They did not receive any
The movie made about $6 million in the box office, and was
the third highest-grossing Singaporean film, after Titanic
(1998) and The Lost World (1997). Buoyed by its success, he
made two more films: Liang Po Po - The Movie (1999) and That
One No Enough (1999), which also marked his directorial
And with I Not Stupid, he has finally shown himself to be a
Mr Yun of Raintree Pictures says Neo's grasp of the
technical aspects of film-making has improved.
'He's definitely evolved,' he says. 'Although I enjoyed
Money No Enough when I saw it, there were raw edges. But the
story structure for this film has improved. It's also very
Singaporean, with a mix of different languages such as
English, Mandarin, even a bit of Singlish.
'He also produces variety shows every week and appears on a
seasonal basis on FM97.2's morning show. This allows him to do
research, talk to people and find out what they
Indeed, Neo, who was born in Kampung Chai Chee, has
admitted that finding the right storylines and jokes for his
Liang Po Po and Liang Xi Mei characters has enhanced his
He is now more interested in making comedies that have
import, rather than gao xiao (slapstick in Mandarin)
films just for the sake of a laugh.
'But humour is still important in a film,' he says. 'People
can stay engaged.'
FILM EXPERIENCE NO ENOUGH?
NEO feels the Singaporean film industry is stuck in limbo,
a case of 'want to die, don't want to die'.
What worries him even more is the proliferation of
enthusiastic but inexperienced amateurs who will sully the
name of the film industry here. And with film-making budgets
hitting the six-digit mark, it is too costly for any aspiring
director to make mistakes.
Neo suggests that film-makers start small and gain
exposure: Go into television production. Make films on video,
and then show them on the big screen.
'If you don't have a dramatic sense, you won't know what
will work and what won't. But the audience will. They can't
pinpoint the reasons, but they'll just say 'bo ho
kua'.' (Hokkien for a poor movie).
He has already finished the scene-by-scene treatment of
'another Money film'. What of the future? 'I will definitely
do a ghost film. After messing around with people, I'll mess
around with spirits,' he says.
Watch out, it's raining movies
RAINTREE PICTURES will be pouring it on in the coming
It will collaborate with the Singapore Film Commission
(SFC) and Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) to make four
telemovies to serve as a platform for budding
Each film will be 90 minutes long and shot on digital video
- a cheap alternative to film, but which gives Raintree the
option of blowing up the films for the big
Invitations to filmmakers to submit their story ideas and
scripts will start next month via the media and the SFC
website (www.sfc.org.sg). Closing date for applications is the
end of March.
The budget for each movie is $150,000. Costs will be
divided between the organising partners.
The films are tentatively scheduled to be shown on Channel
Five at the end of the year.
Raintree Pictures CEO Daniel Yun, 43, says: 'I want to
develop more Jack Neos and Eric Khoos for the Singapore film
Raintree has also worked with Hongkong director Peter
Chan's Applause Pictures to make The Eye, its eighth film. It
stars Malaysian singer Angelica Lee, who acted in the
Taiwanese film, Betelnut Love (2001). The film was shot mainly
in Thailand and directed by brothers Danny and Oxide Pang of
Bangkok Dangerous fame.
The Eye is now in post-production, and will be on the big
screen in May or June.
Meanwhile, I Not Stupid is expected to be Raintree's
cinematic trump card when it hits cinemas on Feb 9 in hopes of
cashing in on the Chinese New Year festivities.
It is Raintree's seventh film and the second collaboration
between comedian Jack Neo and MediaCorp Studios' film-making
Such a flurry of activity is perhaps de rigueur for a
company whose only business is showbusiness. Yun, who is also
the executive producer of I Not Stupid, believes Raintree
deserves a good report card.
Even though only one of its films, Liang Po Po - The Movie,
has broken even, he says the other films have chalked up
significant achievements in Singaporean
The Truth About Jane & Sam (1999) and 2000AD (2000)
were made together with Hongkong film houses. Miramax Films
even picked up the latter film for limited theatrical release
and home entertainment.
The Tree (2001) exposed MediaCorp's Chinese drama division
to the intricacies of film-making.
'It's quite a feat for a company slightly over three years
old to produce eight movies in the Singaporean context,' says
Yun. 'And I'm happy with the films. We've managed to work with
the likes of good film-makers like Derek Yee and Gordon Chan,
and Aaron Kwok.'
So what does it take to make Singapore's film industry
flourish? Keep making films so that a gem like Billy Elliot -
a low-budget, sleeper hit from Britain that won worldwide
kudos and audiences with a simple story rather than elaborate
special effects - will eventually emerge, says
Singapore film companies must also adopt a two-pronged
approach, he adds. They must embark on regional collaborations
with overseas film houses so that homegrown talent can gain
experience and exposure.
Yun says: 'We need to redefine what the homegrown movie is.
It doesn't only have to be filmed here and employ a
Singaporean crew, as long as the vision of the person who's
helming the project and subject matter is
However, he warns against attempting films that Hollywood
and Hongkong can do 'with their eyes closed', such as science
fiction blockbusters and elaborate martial arts
Apart from the big-budget regional films, film-makers
should still make the small-budget films that explore the
nooks and crevices of the Singaporean experience, so that
foreigners can understand what the country is
Yun says the industry here should groom producers. These
essential cogs in the film-making machinery are usually
overshadowed by their more glorious counterparts:
'No producers, no film, it's that simple,' he says. 'The
producer looks at the viability of the movie, greenlights it
and gets the funds for it. He even sits down with the director
and talks about the film and where it should
As for Raintree, Yun intends to gravitate towards more
English-language films. He also wants the company to play
bigger parts in future collaborations with foreign filmmakers:
2000AD and The Truth About Jane & Sam, for instance, were
filmed and produced primarily by Raintree's Hongkong
'We tried very hard to get more exposure,' he says. 'Half
of 2000AD was shot here, and Fann Wong got a Golden Horse
nomination for Best New Artiste two years ago for The Truth
About Jane & Sam.'
Ultimately, Raintree aims to harness the right mix of
homegrown and regional talent to create a break-out hit and
bring glory to the film industry here.
Yun says: 'We're the last man standing as far as
film-making is concerned here, being the only company here
that does feature films full-time.
'The days when Hongkong drives the movie industry are over.
The next lap is the Asian movement, with countries like India,
Thailand, Korea and Japan. As long as we're part of this
movement, we'll be okay.'