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Festive films that do more than entertain
Going beyond action
IF Jackie Chan could, he would like to meet and thank his fans individually but given his huge international following, that would be impossible.
Hence, the 62-year-old keeps working harder and harder: "I'm always thinking of ways to thank my fans for their support - I can't possibly shake hands or sign autographs for everyone - so making movies regularly is the best thing I can give to everyone."
Chan was in Singapore last week to promote his latest work, Kung Fu Yoga, which reunites him with stuntman-turned-director Stanley Tong, who is behind some of the action star's classics like Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Police Story Parts 3 (1992) and 4 (1996).
Also present were upcoming Bollywood actresses Disha Patani and Amyra Dastur, and Internet yoga star Mu Qimiya, who all star in the film.
In the China-India co-production, Chan plays an archeology professor searching for the lost treasure of the ancient Magadha Kingdom.
Kung Fu Yoga features a first for Chan as he busts out some Bollywood-style dance moves, which he claims were more difficult than martial arts.
He found himself struggling with the complicated choreography until it was simplified to mimic simple actions like flying a kite or changing a bulb: "Dancing is really hard!"
Needless to say, Chan's co-stars were all in awe of how determined he was and saw first-hand for themselves what a workaholic the "King of Asian Action Cinema" is when he refused to stop work while injured.
During a shoot in London, he found himself suddenly in intense pain and was rushed to hospital where he underwent emergency surgery because his intestines were out of alignment.
Recounting the incident, Chan shares: "I could have died and the operation took five hours but I couldn't wait to go back to work the moment I woke up."
The reason? He did not want to hold up the production schedule.
"I could have said: 'Let's stop for six months', but everybody was already in Iceland by then and ready to start work ... Besides people get injured everyday!" he shrugs.
The episode was initially kept under wraps until Hong Kong actor Aarif Rahman, who also stars in Kung Fu Yoga, let the cat out of the bag during a promotional tour of the film in Beijing.
Not only that - the shoot required Chan to dive into freezing Icelandic waters, which he promptly did, instead of getting a stunt double. "I was already there, so why not?" he says, matter-of-factly.
It's enough for Patani to label Chan a "superhuman" because of the way he abuses his body.
"He never goes to the hospital or doctors - I don't think he likes it," she laughs, before adding that Chan would pop a broken bone in and out of his shoulder on set to amuse her.
But his daredevil reputation can sometimes backfire, like when his co-stars were immediately attended to by the production crew after filming the aforementioned underwater action sequence in Iceland, while Chan was ignored.
"Nobody cared about me," he says, in mock anger. "Everybody thought: 'He's Jackie Chan, he'll be OK!', so they rushed to help the others first!"
Which is why Chan is eager to shed his iron-man image and dabble in genres outside of action on-screen - something which he advises his younger co-stars to take note of too.
"Action stars have limited shelf lives so I prefer to be known as an actor who can also do action films," he points out. "Look at how Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro have reinvented themselves - I want to be like them."
Learning from the veterans
WHEN approached to make a festive movie for Chinese New Year (CNY), filmmaker Kelvin Sng was initially apprehensive about taking on the project.
This despite him being like the majority of cinema-goers who want something light-hearted.
"I was quite reluctant because the films tend to be the Hong Kong slapstick type," he explains.
Hence, the 43-year-old asked to be given some creative freedom as he "didn't want his film to be CNY for the sake of CNY".
The result is The Fortune Handbook, which Sng wrote the original treatment for. Like Take 2, another local festive comedy opening at the same time, Jack Neo is on-board as executive producer.
"I wanted the film to have a positive message about the spirit of giving ... and as we were brainstorming it, the three leads - Mark Lee, Christopher Lee and Li Nanxing - came into the picture and made things even more interesting."
The trio are television veterans and Sng had previously directed comedian (Mark) Lee in the hit Taxi! Taxi! (2013).
The movie is Li's first attempt at tackling a comedic role and features Nathan Hartono in a cameo.
The Fortune Handbook's plot tells the story of a good-for-nothing man who steals the secret recipe for an age-old Chinese pastry from his brother-in-law, but gets caught in the act by the God of Fortune.
It had to be shot in 20 days to accommodate the three actors' busy schedules but Sng says he enjoyed making the comedy despite the tighter-than-usual deadline to get the film ready in time for a CNY release.
"Directing the three lead actors was the most memorable thing for me," he shares. "Although it was the first time all three are working on the same project, they shared plenty of chemistry with each other."
Sng admits that he also learnt a lot from the veteran actors on set. "I am used to directing actors but the three of them are not the sort who will just do everything you tell them - there was two-way traffic and we had a lot of creative exchanges coming together as a team."
He singles out (Mark) Lee as an example: "He is a very good comedian and his timing is immaculate; yet he is ready to take instructions from a director like me. But at the same time, he will improvise and try different lines (to milk bigger laughs)."
Newbie unfazed by directorial debut
MOST new directors would probably be stressed out if their works are set for a box-office battle during a busy festive blockbuster period; not Ivan Ho, though.
The first-time filmmaker was talent-spotted by Jack Neo to direct the Chinese New Year (CNY) comedy Take 2 after graduating with the Best Director and Best Editor awards from J Team Academy, a workshop run by the latter's J Team Productions.
"A lot of people have asked me if I face any pressure making my first film and releasing it during the festive period but I think Jack should feel it more because he picked me," jests Ho. "But he should be used to it having made many Chinese New Year movies himself - I'm just honoured to be on this 'battlefield'."
Neo is Take 2's executive producer and one of its co-writers. The film's plot revolves around four ex-convicts who come up with the novel idea of setting up a three-in-one Japanese ramen business which also provides tuition for children and massage services for parents.
The cast features various familiar faces from Neo's films including Ryan Lian from the Long Long Time Ago duology (2015), and Gadrick Chin and Maxi Lim from the Ah Boys to Men franchise.
Ho previously worked in the television industry as an assistant producer during the late 1980s and 1990s, where he first met his mentor-friend Neo in 1989, but left shortly after to join his family business.
After a stint in China, the 50-year-old returned to Singapore in 2013 when he signed up for J Team Academy and was a member of its pioneer batch of graduates.
"I was curious about the local industry," says Ho, who reunited with Neo after about two decades and went on to co-write the screenplays for the Long Long Time Ago films and Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen (2015), which received an award for Best Screenplay at the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Movie Festival in Sanya, China.
As a first-time director, he says the most exciting thing was seeing the script for Take 2 come to life: "Sometimes what you write and what you see on screen can be quite different but this time I was totally in control."
Ho adds that he wanted his film to have a message even though CNY fare tends to be mindless.
"We didn't want the audience to forget everything when they leave the cinema so we used ex-convicts as the main characters because these are people whom we don't see everyday but they exist and have problems (being accepted by the public and adapting to society)," he explains. "We then added some funny parts because we didn't want it to be too heavy either."
Ho cites Neo as an influence for the comic elements in Take 2 but put his own touch in there as well. "I added a lot of action elements over the course of writing and directing the film because I grew up with man hua (Chinese manga) and action films," he points out. "So the difference between Take 2 and Jack's films is that mine has a comedic style that is straight out of the comic books I used to read."