Tanks for the Memories: Ah Boys to Men 4 set visit

For inSing

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

Seven For Fifty – 7 Letters Press Conference

For F*** Magazine


Singapore’s directing dream team talks 7 Letters
By Jedd Jong
In 2015, Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence and there has been no shortage of projects planned to commemorate this occasion. One of the biggest is an anthology film that unites seven of Singapore’s most prolific filmmakers – Royston Tan, Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, K. Rajagopal, Jack Neo, Tan Pin Pin and Kelvin Tong. At the press conference held in Golden Village’s Suntec cineplex, the title of the Jubilee film project was officially unveiled: 7 Letters.

L-R: Kelvin Tong, Eric Khoo, K. Rajagopal, Royston Tah, Tan Pin Pin, Boo Junfeng, Jack Neo
“As we approach the celebration for Singapore’s 50th birthday, we as a film community wonder what we can contribute to this celebration,” Royston Tan, who is spearheading the project, says. “This is a ground initiative; we’ve decided to embark on a personal journey to tell personal stories about Singapore that inspire us, and more importantly about Singaporeans, how they’ve impacted us, and telling familiar stories. This gesture is almost like writing a very personal love letter to Singapore. Hence, 7 Letters.”
Royston says that when he put out the call for directors to participate in the project, the response was swift and enthusiastic and that the concepts each of them had for their short films came together fairly quickly. This assembly of directors is a super-group of sorts, Jack Neo remarking “this is the first time in Singapore history that all the directors are together so very exciting.”

When asked how each director’s different styles will work together as presented in 7 Letters, Tan Pin Pin replies “I think it’ll work together very well because this film will be a celebration of our differences. We all have a common core in which we’ve been making films for many years to tell Singapore stories. I think it’ll be exciting for audiences to see Singapore from so many different perspectives.”

Boo Junfeng, the youngest of the seven directors, is grateful to be invited on board. “Well, it’s an honour. When Royston asked if I was interested to be a part of it and when I found out who else was on board, it was really an honour to be a part of this and to be asked to be a part of this,” he says.

Each of the directors then elaborates on their own segments of the film. Boo’s is titled “Evolution”. Explaining why he chose the theme, he says “I think growing up in Singapore, we are used to the idea of change. Whether it is [the] cityscape, attitudes, our way of life, things have always been changing and will probably always continue to change.” Despite the constantly shifting sands, Boo observes that “certain things remain, certain core values remain, those are the things that carry through and define who we are.” “Evolution” will be set in the present day with a quick flashback to 1965.

Eric Khoo’s contribution is entitled “Legacy” and is dedicated to the golden days of filmmaking in Singapore. “The Shaw Brothers were here making films from the 40s and mine is really a tribute to the pioneer generation of filmmakers,” he explains. Khoo, who founded the horror film imprint Gorylah Pictures, shares how horror movies were a formative part of his film-going youth. “I love horror. That’s gonna sneak its way in. And then really, we were known for our great ghouls, Orang Minyak, Penanggal, these are incredible, fascinating sort of tales from folklore. My whole thing with cinema is to pay tribute to that kind of cinema that was huge and did incredible box office throughout Asia.” He then takes a moment to reminisce about making his first feature film 12 Storeys, in which Jack Neo played the lead role of “Ah Gu”.

K. Rajagopal’s section of the film, “Embrace”, is inspired by his own parents and as such is a story that’s close to his heart. “It was the early 70s and it was very uncertain at that time for a lot of people and being a minority, wondering whether to stay back in Singapore or not, it was very difficult in terms of the situation so to overcome that and whether to stay on, that was a very, very big question,” he says. “Embrace” deals with the struggle between following traditions and forging ahead. “I think as much as I don’t keep to the traditions or anything like that, it sort of makes you who you are, so I think it’s equally important and at the same time to embrace change,” he says, adding that this short film is a tribute to the Indian community of Singapore’s early post-Independence days.

Jack Neo, the most commercially successful of the seven directors, is helming “Time”. Outlining the story, he says “I wanted to tell a puppy love story. I have never done this before and I wanted to show you know kampong (village) boy and kamponggirl, they are around the age of 12, this is the beginning of…they start feeling about love.” Set in the late 60s – early 70s and inspired by his childhood in Kampong Chai Chee, his segment of the film will consist mostly of dialogue in the Hokkien dialect to keep things authentic for the period setting. “Because it’s 1965, so there’s no reason censor board not happy,” he quips. Waxing nostalgic, Neo says he misses “the coconut tree, I miss the smell in the village, the kampong…I miss all the neighbours. All the neighbour children playing together.” Having mostly worked in feature films, keeping the story at a running time of 10-12 minutes was a new challenge for the director.

For Tan Pin Pin, known mainly as a documentary filmmaker, the chapter “Roots” will be her first narrative drama in 15 years. “It is a challenge but I’ve decided that I should take challenges up so I really relish this opportunity and I hope to seek advice,” she says. Despite the banning of her recent film To Singapore, With Love, Tan Pin Pin’s affection for Singapore is still evident. “All my films, ever since I started making films too many years ago, have really been love letters to Singapore and that love is manifested by searching and finding and trying to dig out roots. So this theme, I’m not quite sure why it just stays with me, I think it’s almost quite central to everything I do. So when I was presented with this opportunity, the story that floated up in my mind also followed this theme. So it’s now a drama, a road movie, about a family looking for their roots.”

Royston Tan conceived of his segment, “Song”, after bouncing ideas off of Eric Khoo. “He said ‘oh, I’m going to pay tribute to cinema, images’ then I said ‘okay, I should pay tribute to sound, music.’” The short film is set in the 80s and revolves around two neighbours who become unlikely friends even though they don’t speak the same language, having been brought together by music. Royston says, “One of the very immediate things that I wanted to capture was Chinese Opera. I gathered the original troupe of Xin Sai Feng which had already disbanded but the Hua Dan (female lead), they’re retired but they specially decided to come back to do this film.” The director has an affinity for nostalgic locations in Singapore, as displayed in his documentary Old Romances. He plans to shoot “Song” at a first-generation Housing Development Board (HDB) block in Tanglin Halt before it is demolished.

Kelvin Tong is absent as he is busy working on post-production for his film in Bangkok. Royston explains on his behalf that Kelvin Tong’s short film, “Tradition”, will focus on “how tradition plays a very important part in bringing the whole family together” and is set during the annual Qing Ming festival, when Chinese families visit the graves of deceased relatives to pay their respects.

The gala premiere of 7 Letters in July 2015 will mark the grand reopening of the historic Capitol Theatre. We are shown a photograph from Royston’s youth taken at the Capitol Theatre, in which the then-19-year-old Royston stands alongside his friend and famed director Wong Kar-Wai after the premiere of Wong’s film Happy Together. “I remember Wong Kar-Wai saying this thing that was very, very moving. He said he decided to have the Asian premiere of Happy Together in Singapore because of Capitol Theatre. This kind of theatre you don’t see this anymore in many parts of the world. It’s something he feel that it’s truly a cinematic experience for him.”

Eric Khoo adds, “I think Capitol is the most grand of all the cinemas. There was the dome inside and you all these incredible sculptures and it was really big, I think like over a thousand seats. It’s great that it’s coming back. I saw a lot of horror films there, there was one really good film called It’s Alive,” he says, referring to the 1974 flick about a vicious killer infant.

F*** asks each of the directors what physical possession or piece of their own work they would put in a time capsule. “Probably a film I haven’t made yet,” Boo Junfeng says softly to chuckles from the audience. Tan Pin Pin’s pick is a branch from a tree growing downstairs that sheds purple flowers. K. Rajagopal chooses, appropriately enough, his film Timeless.

“For me, it won’t be a physical thing, it’s really the ren qing wei (personal touch) that I want to capture,” Royston says. “We’ve been moving very quickly and I think this ren qing wei is something I really cherish. I hope to capture this but I don’t think I’ve figured out how to put it on film.”

Jack Neo chooses something similarly intangible, the “kampong spirit” that has mostly eroded away.
For Eric Khoo, it’s Pain, the short film he made in 1994 that got banned. “I think it sort of paved the way,” he says thinking back.