The journey that their characters undertake through the course of National Service (NS) might be one from a boy to a man, but that which they personally go through is one from obscurity to celebrity. Indeed, just listening to the fresh new stars of Jack Neo’s latest movie ‘Ah Boys to Men’, it is without a doubt that they know this is the big break they have been waiting for that is likely to change their lives.
“It was like a dream come true to be working on a Jack Neo movie,” says 25-year-old Maxi Lim (who plays an over-eager recruit named Aloysius Jin), and he may as well be speaking for the rest of his fellow young cast members. Maxi is probably the one who has the most experience among them as an actor, having participated in various short films and in Channel U’s recent drama ‘Show Hand’ before snagging this first role in a feature film.
In contrast, Joshua Tan, who plays the lead protagonist Ken Chow in the movie, has never been in front of the camera before. In fact, he had no hopes of getting called up after auditioning for the movie, especially since the 22-year-old Australian citizen and Singapore permanent resident’s command of Mandarin left much to be desired.
“My first audition was in Mandarin, and my command of the language was not fantastic, so I really had no expectations of it,” Joshua says. “I was quite surprised when Jack called me up for a second audition, and it was then that he allowed me to recite my lines in English.” When he finally got the part, he knew it was a golden opportunity – and so after talking to his parents, decided to defer his undergraduate studies in Monash University for a year so he could commit to the part.
Since he was new to acting, it helped that he could relate the character to his own personal experience going through NS. In the movie, Joshua’s character Ken experiences a particularly devastating blow in Basic Military Training (BMT) school when his girlfriend leaves him for someone else. It’s a reality Jack realised many recruits confronted, which he then included in the movie – and Joshua says he could completely understand what his character was going through as the same thing had happened to him.
His fellow actor, Wang Wei Liang, also found his real and reel life characters quite similar. A getai performer who for the last three years had been under the mentorship of veteran Wang Lei, Wei Liang found himself playing a resourceful ‘Hokkien Beng’ type not so different from who he is in real life. Just like his character, Wei Liang proved to be sharp and quick-witted when meeting the press, even though his command of English may not have been as good as that of his peers.
Compared to them however, Wei Liang did not even intend to audition for the movie. “One day Wang Lei told me to get into a car, and the next thing he knew he said we were at the audition for Jack Neo’s new movie,” he says. “At first, I was quite upset! If I had known I was going to be auditioning, I’d at least have prepared myself for it.” He needn’t have worried though – Jack immediately saw how he could fit into the role of ‘Lobang’, and it’s clear from watching the movie why the character fitted him like a glove.
While Weiliang had been building a fanbase from the stage prior to this movie, his other two companions – Noah Yap and Tosh Zhang – were doing so in front of the computer. Both have loyal followings on social media as well as Youtube – whereas Tosh posts his video diaries and views on social issues on Youtube, Noah prefers making funny videos about things he sees in everyday life.
Despite being active new media users, Noah and Tosh had not met or heard of each other prior to filming. Yet they became fans of one another after they sat down to watch each other’s material. “The first time I saw Noah’s video, I thought he was very ‘beng’ but also very funny!” says Tosh. “I admire how he is able to reach out to the masses, and I hope to be able to pick up that ability one day.”
“We really have to thank Jack for this opportunity,” adds Noah. “He is open and willing to nurture new talents in the online space, and that actually gives us ‘Youtubbers’ to come and work together.” Working on this movie also proved to be a melting point for Noah in a different way, as it gave him the chance to experience what it would be like to go through NS. The only one among the rest yet to serve his NS, he adds that he felt as if he were a recruit during filming.
“All the rest of them were encouraging me all the way, and that’s how it was on the set, everyone just supporting each other,” says Noah. “With buddies like this, I don’t mind going into the army at all!” Going out together post-shooting also helped build a firm bond of friendship amongst the actors, who expressed hopes that they would all be able to make it to the big time together.
“It’s not about who makes it, and who doesn’t,” says Joshua. “It’s not at all competitive between us. Rather, we all really just want the best for each other, to help each other to succeed whenever we can.” So keen are they to work together again that they have actually thought of making another sequel to the movie, another parter after the continuation of this instalment in Feb next year.
Indeed, what they lack in experience, director Jack Neo says that they make up for amply in passion. “That’s what I love about working with new actors,” he says, complimenting his new ‘recruits’. “They tend to be very hardworking and committed to doing their best, and even if you ask them to do more takes, they are very happy to work with you to get it right.”
Text by Gabriel Chong; Photos by Linus Tee