Love no enough?
Film-maker Jack Neo tackles another timely S'porean issue. -TNP
HE says it with pride: Nope, he has never avoided what others may see as political hot potatoes.
A widening income gap, the plight of ex-convicts, Government red tape, a stifling education system - film-maker Jack Neo has tackled all these issues and more.
What more is there to explore? Heartland love.
His next movie, titled Love Matters, is a Singaporean love story, Jack Neo-style. In the movie, his 13th to date, he looks at what happens to love, 20 years after the bliss of the wedding day, in his trademark satirical style.
Henry Thia and Yeo Yann Yann play a heartlander couple struggling to keep their bedroom romance alive and grappling with a teenage son exploring the birds and the bees for the first time.
But it's not a cheap sex flick. 'It is a deep look at the loss of intimacy and communication in Singapore society,' said Neo.
The movie is slated for release during the Chinese New Year period in January. Once again, the timing is impeccable. Singapore is seeing a rising divorce rate, a birth rate that shows little sign of improving, and the same dismal spot every year in the Durex sex survey.
'It's time we talked about all this,' said Neo.
Last Thursday, just after filming for Love Matters wrapped up, The New Paper caught up with him on location in Kuala Lumpur.
Why a love story?
'Actually, a lot of my previous movies were also about love. I Not Stupid, Money No Enough, etc, were also about love, but different types of love,' he said.
It's the underlying strand in many of his movies, and the audience is lapping it all up.
Money No Enough 2 recently broke a box-office record in Malaysia, raking in RM4.6 million ($1.9m), making it the highest-grossing Singaporean movie there. The previous record was held by another Jack Neo movie - Ah Long Pte Ltd (RM4.4 million).
With box-office success has come two national awards, the Public Service Medal in 2004 and, one year later, the Cultural Medallion (Singapore's highest artistic honour).
Neo recently set up his own movie studio with a partner. It's a big step because it means that unlike before, he now owns the copyright to his works.
But he still feels very much a misunderstood film-maker. His movies are loved by some, hated by others, and usually just simply dismissed by critics.
In his National Day Rally speech in August, PM Lee Hsien Loong said he was 'a bit disappointed' with Money No Enough 2. It had failed to explain fully the Government efforts to help Singaporeans cope with higher Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) charges, said PM Lee.
The movie, with opening scenes of street protests against the ERP hike, was released just as ERP charges was becoming a hot topic.
'I appreciate the PM's comments,' said Neo. 'But I have a feeling he didn't finish watching the movie.'
The movie as a whole is actually balanced, he argued. It tackled many issues, such as caring for the elderly, which is also the concern of the Government.
'I educated a big group of people from a different perspective,' said Neo.
'So yes, I felt PM Lee was a bit unfair, because I'm not like those opposition politicians of yesteryear, who only know how to whack everything that the Government does.'
Getting the right message
This much is apparent: While it's easy to get his jokes, it's not that easy to get his message.
That may be why when you sit down with him, Singapore's most commercially successful director almost sounds defensive talking about his works.
'Most of the time, you go and watch a movie with your girlfriend. I make movies which you can take your grandmother to watch...' he said.
And then: 'Some people cannot understand me because they cannot see the things that I see...
'A lot of young directors these days do not have an interest in what is happening in society. What they make has no connection with the audience.'
But the fact that Neo's movies are often dismissed by film critics and the serious art crowd is one of his biggest bug bears.
Dr Kenneth Paul Tan, assistant dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, calls Neo an 'organic intellectual... speaking on behalf of the Chinese-educated community', but says that Neo's 'superficial criticisms calculated to draw quick laughs do not, by and large, amount to any deep, comprehensive, or complex critique.'
It's satire, but not everyone likes laughing at themselves. In this love-hate relationship with the audience, does Neo make you swell with pride or cringe in embarrassment?
For Neo's business partner, Mr Philip Wu, there's no doubt it's pride. Mr Wu, 40, left a high-flying marketing job last year to do 'something meaningful with Jack'.
'Every foreigner knows Singapore as a clean and green city. But beyond that, wouldn't it be great if they also knew how we think and feel, and laugh at ourselves?' said Mr Wu.
'Whenever a Hollywood movie comes, we watch it. So today, we know America through things like Transformers and Mickey Mouse. Can Singapore do the same? Wouldn't that be a wonderful aspiration?'
It would be.
But first, Neo's got to keep the common folks laughing, and make the critics sit up.
This article was first published in The New Paper on Nov 18, 2008.
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