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MARCH 6, 2002 WED
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FEB 1
Jack 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

By Karl Ho

THESE days, kids play a huge role in comedian Jack Neo's life.

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, two.

Regent and Ritz were named after hotels. Ethel is in EM2, and her schoolbus driver calls her affectionately 'Shangri-La'.

Neo says with a sigh: 'Now my daughter tells me she hates Mandarin, and I'm supposed to be in the Chinese entertainment business.'

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 autographs.

One bespectacled boy asks: 'Is that your signature? Quite funny.' Another asks: 'Do you use all your money to buy a Mercedes?'

As he walks towards his champagne-gold Mercedes sedan, Neo breaks into his trademark rapid-fire chortle. 'Of course,' he says.

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 film.

'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 you.'

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 appearances.

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 shoes.

'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 themselves.'

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 story.

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 the box.

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 Guidance) rating.

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 defensible.'

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 director prize.

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 royalties.

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 debut.

And with I Not Stupid, he has finally shown himself to be a mature film-maker.

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 want.'

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 observational skills.

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 months.

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 filmmakers.

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 screen.

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 scene.'

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 arm.

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 cinema.

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 Yun.

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 Singaporean.'

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 films.

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 about.

Yun says the industry here should groom producers. These essential cogs in the film-making machinery are usually overshadowed by their more glorious counterparts: directors.

'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 go.'

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 partners.

'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.'



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