Tanks for the memories: on the set of Ah Boys to Men 4
A tank flattens a car as Jack Neo takes us through the mayhem
By Jedd Jong
On a sweltering September afternoon, this writer walked past overturned cars in an open-air parking lot full of debris. There were open flames and smoke, as a bloodied extra covered in dust shuffled by. Bricks were scattered about, as egg crates were being burned to create smoke, the smell of cordite hanging in the air.
Hiding in the distance behind some trees, almost as if waiting the wings of a theatre, was a Leopard 2SG main battle tank.
inSing was on the set of Ah Boys to Men 4, the latest instalment in Jack Neo’s highly popular series of comedy films, which follow a group of Singapore Armed Forces recruits through their National Service.
In this film, our heroes are serving their reservist duty in the Armour Unit, operating tanks and armoured fighting vehicles. The scene that was being filmed that day involved a Singaporean tank pursuing an enemy armoured vehicle.
The film stars Tosh Zhang, Wang Weiliang, Joshua Tan and Maxi Lim, reprising their roles as Sergeant Ong, Lobang, Ken Chow and Aloysius “Wayang King” Jin respectively. New additions to the cast include Apple Chan, Jai Kishan, Ryan Lian and Hafiz Aziz. None of the principal actors were present during the set visit, because the interior scenes with the actors had already been shot earlier. Actual soldiers from Headquarters, Armour were operating the vehicles on the set, with Major Audrey Kon keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.
Director Neo assured us that unlike the war scene glimpsed in the first Ah Boys to Men film, this was not a video game, and the film would depict Singapore actually at war. Where the invading troops hail from, he wouldn’t say. “We are not going to say where. Enemy can be anywhere,” Neo told the visiting media.
Speaking to inSing in Mandarin, Neo laid out the scene for us “These HDB blocks in Dover have been sold en bloc, so we’re able to take over this area and turn it into our war zone,” he said. “In around a month’s time, the whole thing will be taken down. Nobody’s staying here anymore, so it’s safe for us to do our explosions. We’ve spent a lot of time and money converting this into our war zone. As you can see, there’s lots of debris, as well as real cars that we’ve wrecked.”
“There are so many crew members required, we need lots of coordination,” Neo remarked, gesturing to the people around him. “We’re working with machines, and sometimes machines will throw tantrums. They’ll go ‘oh, I’m malfunctioning now, too bad for you,’ and you have to sort that out.” When asked if humans throw tantrums too, Neo replied, “occasionally”.
Two main action beats were on the agenda: the Leopard tank was set to roll over and completely flatten a car, and there was a major explosion planned for later that day. We waited around for hours, and Neo explained why things weren’t moving at a breakneck pace. “It’s very troublesome to shoot,” he said. “Once there’s a mistake, you have to reset everything to zero, to check that everything is safe, so the process is very, very slow. But slow is good, to make sure everyone is safe.”
After several hours of making sure everything was just right, it was time for the big event. The tank trundled along, gaining speed, crushing the Chevrolet beneath its treads. After the sequence was complete, Neo happily posed next to the flattened automobile.
After another two hours, it was time to film the next big sequence. An unassuming bespectacled elderly man in a red polo shirt and navy-blue shorts set up an explosive charge in front of the enemy armoured fighting vehicle. This is Jimmy Low, founder of The Stunt Production and the go-to guy for pyrotechnic stunts in local film and TV productions.
After making sure everyone was at a safe distance, that the debris was arranged to hide the explosive charge from the camera, and with a drone positioned overhead to get an aerial shot, it was time to blow stuff up. Even with earplugs in, the explosion was deafening and the shockwave palpable.
The film is being released the same year that the Singapore Armed Forces celebrates its 50th anniversary. Why should audiences return to cinemas for a fourth go-round? “Just from listening about the personal experiences of the men in your family who’ve undergone National Service, you might not get a full understanding of what it’s like,” Neo commented, adding that the Ah Boys to Men films “bring you inside the units, and convey why National Service is important to our nation, especially in times like these.”
Ah Boys to Men 4 opens in Singapore on 9 November 2017