Thursday February 26, 2009
Singapore's most successful film director Jack Neo defends his filmmaking philosophy.
What do you do when you’re assigned to interview a director whose movies you dislike? In the end, I decided that the best approach was to just be honest about it. And so, I told Singapore director Jack Neo that I don’t find his films funny at all. I was prepared to get thrown out of the room.
“What’s wrong with you?” Neo asked jokingly. Then on a more serious note: “Is it because you can’t understand the jokes?”
I explained that I like a little sophistication in my films and that the humour should not be overstated and obvious.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” said Neo. “There are many film critics who feel the same way as you do. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people make films for a certain group of people. Other films only cater for a small group. It’s really up to the director. Obviously, most directors want to do it for a bigger group, but it’s not easy. What if no one comes to see the film, then how?”
Neo is arguably Singapore’s most successful film director. His movies consistently rake in millions at the box-office. (Incidentally, Singapore’s highest-grossing local film, Money No Enough, was written by Neo but not directed by him.)
Even so, he has had his fair share of criticism and negative reviews simply because his movies are far from refined; they have a raw, everyman quality about them, something which an acquaintance once described as “pasar malam standard”. But Neo said he remains unperturbed.
“Some people criticise my films because (my films) don’t work for them,” said Neo. “I know that many people understand and enjoy them, and also get the messages in my movies. And this helps some people understand some of the problems they face.
“For example, I Not Stupid 1 and 2 made people think of how they should change their attitudes towards children. Still, there are people who say that’s not the right way to do it. That’s perfectly fine.”
Neo was in Kuala Lumpur to promote his latest movie, Love Matters (Xing Fu Wan Sui), which he co-directed with newbie Gilbert Chan. The film, a frank dramedy about three couples of various ages and the sexual and romantic problems they face, retains that familiar Jack Neo “style”.
I tell him that even though I dislike his films, I’ve seen almost all of them.
“If it’s such suffering, don’t go see them!” he joked.
Indeed, I might have had to suffer through his movies, but it’s undeniable that over here in Malaysia, they pack in a multi-racial crowd, even though his films are mostly in Mandarin and Hokkien.
“I go back to the basic and the simple,” Neo explained. “I won’t tell a complicated story that the majority won’t understand. Any person can understand my movies and enjoy them. Which means I have to know how people think, what they like and don’t like.”
Every Monday night for 10 years, Neo has had to create 25-minute skits for Comedy Night, a popular TV variety show in Singapore.
“That was very good training for us,” he said. “We learned how to connect with people. And in spite of all this, I never had to sacrifice what I wanted to say.”
He also understands the dollars-and-cents frame of mind that fuels the commercial machinery, and that he needs to deliver the goods with every film. Otherwise, he might not get the chance to make another film.
So, I asked if he constantly feels the pressure to live up to previous successes.
“Of course!” he replied.
The pressure must be terrible?
“It is terrible!” But he added that despite the criticisms, it is the supportive audiences who give him the confidence to go on.
His latest movie may seem like a kind of sequel to his 1999 sex comedy That One Not Enough (Na Ge Bu Gou). But both Neo and Chan disagree with that view.
“I think this is quite different,” said Neo. “For this movie, we also talk about youngsters. In That One Not Enough, there were no youngsters. And I don’t think there was a playboy character either.”
In Love Matters, Malaysian radio presenter Jack Lim plays a womaniser who inadvertently falls in love.
“I would say that there’s a certain element of exploring love and sex. But I don’t see it as a sequel,” said Chan.
“The theme for this movie is love,” said Neo. “After 20 or 30 years of marriage, sometimes we have to ask whether our spouses still love us. Why they have started to take things for granted and not care about our feelings.”
The original script, written in English by Chan, went through many changes. It was originally called “Sex and the Lion City”. Then during production, it adopted the title, “Republic of Happiness”. After the movie was completed, it changed its title yet again to Love Matters.
“Along the way we realised that in Asian countries we don’t need to emphasise so much on (sex),” said Neo. “So we changed things as we shot the movie. There are no nude or lovemaking scenes. There are only discussions, and we want to use this movie as a way for parents to talk to their children about these things.”
Still, in Singapore, where the film was released during the Chinese New Year last month, it got slapped with an NC-16 rating (no children below 16 permitted). This somewhat hurt its local box-office performance, as it went head-to-head with another local film, The Wedding Game.
“We were a bit disappointed because without the NC-16 rating, we would have done better, at least 30% to 40% better,” said Neo. “But these are the rules, although sometimes we may not understand them (laughs).”
For Chan, Love Matters was a chance to work with Neo and also to make a commercial film. His first effort was a small 2006 film called S11.
Neo is reportedly well-known for making changes to the script on set, and this, at first, daunted Chan. But he quickly learned to adapt.
“I feel that making a commercial film is much harder than making an arthouse film,” said Chan. “There are many elements that you have to consider. And really, it’s not easy. I’m happy to have gone through the whole process, to understand all the stages of filmmaking on a larger scale.”
Love Matters opens in local cinemas today.
Jumaat, Februari 27, 2009
Thursday February 26, 2009