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Sunday August 5, 2012

Reel war

ARMOURED vehicles roll down the heart of Singapore’s financial district in Robinson Road as thundering explosions go off. It sounds like a far-fetched scenario, but it is one that director Jack Neo wants to include in his new movie about military service, Ah Boys To Men.

Neo, 52, painted an ambitious picture to the media recently. “There will be enemy soldiers and there will be a battle there. It will be the biggest challenge I have faced in making films,” he says.

He estimates that scene alone will cost SG$100,000 (RM250,000) and is still trying to get sponsors to pull it off.

This is not the only challenge he faces. The film, budgeted for SG$3mil (RM7.5mil), will also be split into two parts. Part one is slated to open on Nov 8, while part two will be released during Chinese New Year next year.

Even for someone whose films are often a lock at the box office, a two-part movie is a gamble. His last film, the drama We Not Naughty (2012), grossed a healthy SG$2.2mil (RM5.5mil).

He explains that the script for Ah Boys To Men packs a lot of material, touching on army units of yesteryear and Singapore at war.

He says: “If I put everything in part one, the movie would be three hours long.” The plan is to keep each of the two parts within 100 minutes, and have part one end on a cliffhanger.

While the battle of Robinson Road has yet to be confirmed, Neo will definitely be blowing up another familiar icon. He says: “You will see beautiful HDB blocks being bombed.”

Noting that “this is the first time Singapore will be engulfed in war”, he adds: “One of the aims of national service is to defend the nation, but after so many years of peace, we don’t feel the necessity of our soldiers going through all that training”.

The film project is in conjunction with the 45th anniversary of national service in Singapore.

The Ministry of Defence had wanted to put together a film using material from the National Geographic Channel television series Every Singaporean Son (2011). But Neo thought it would be difficult to do so and suggested making a new film instead.

Mindef is supporting the project by giving access to weapons, tanks and armoured vehicles.

Playing the key roles of four recruits are four newcomers chosen from more than 500 who auditioned. The rich and spoilt Ken Chow is played by Joshua Tan, 22; the eager beaver Wayang King is played by Maxi Lim, 25; the streetsmart Lobang is played by Wang Weiliang, 25; while the big-mouthed IP Man is played by Noah Yap, 19.

In the film, Ken wants to study abroad with his girlfriend and is unhappy that his plans are disrupted by his national service commitment.

Tan can certainly identify with that. In 2010, after completing his mass communication studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, the Australian citizen and Singapore permanent resident was planning to study psychology at Monash University but could not do so because of national service.

He says evenly: “I can feel how Ken Chow hates the army so much.”

He adds: “Ideally, I do want to pursue acting as a career but I’m not sure what kind of opportunities I’ll get, so I’m taking things one step at a time.”

Making the film also brings back national service memories for Neo. He was a quartermaster officer who handled stores and logistics, so he is very particular about the authenticity of details – down to the skeletal battle order that soldiers wore in the 1970s and 1980s.

There is added resonance for him as one of his three sons will be joining the Army next year. The father of four says: “I’m not worried. I’ve been through it and I know that safety is No.1 in the Army.

“Because I went through Officer Cadet School, I told him ‘If you can, fight for yourself and go to OCS.’” – The Straits Times Singapore/Asia News Network

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