Li Nanxing is widely known as Singapore’s Chow Yun Fat, but Taiwanese star Aaron Chen discovered that besides Nanxing’s good looks, the star also has the same affable easygoing charm as the Hong Kong actor. In fact, Nanxing’s charm was so winning that Aaron accepted a supporting role in the actor’s big screen acting and directing debut after just one meeting with him. 

“The Ultimate Winner”, opening in cinemas this week, sees Aaron play a smarmy tycoon Champion Lee who, through a series of events, becomes Nanxing’s character’s arch gambling rival. This also marks the first time that the renowned Taiwanese actor of popular dramas such as “Taiwan Ah Seng” and “Taiwan Thunderbolt Fire” is starring in a local production for the first time. 

The experience has turned out to be such an enjoyable one that the star is unabashed in declaring that he is all ready to return for the sequel- if Nanxing is up for it. At the press conference to promote the movie, the rapport between Aaron and Nanxing was clearly evident. The duo bantered good-naturedly with each other, and Nanxing was seen placing his hand on Aaron’s wrist several times during the session. 

“I thought Nanxing was very professional as a director on the set of the movie, even though this is his first attempt at directing,” Aaron said. “He knew what needed to be shot each day, and he went about it very efficiently, so much so that the whole shoot went quite smoothly according to schedule.” When pressed to rate Nanxing’s maiden directorial attempt, Aaron said without hesitation that he would give his co-star, director and now close friend a confident “85 out of 100”. 

What a sigh of relief it must be then for Nanxing, who admitted that the shoot was a stressful one for him. It was not his intention to direct the movie right at the start, but he was eventually convinced by his producers’ words that he would be a good fit, given that he had previously acted in one of the most popular TV series in local history “The Unbeatables” and his own personal experience with gambling. 

Still, pulling double duty as actor and director on this movie proved to be more arduous than he thought. On one hand, he had to worry about getting the right shots down, and taking note of the little details such as where the props in each shot would go; on the other, he had to worry about his own acting to ensure his character would come across as believable to the audience, especially in his scenes as husband-and-wife with the much younger Rebecca Lim.

The latter was perhaps most disquieting for Nanxing as an actor before the shoot, as the 46-year-old was worried how he might look onscreen next to his wife played by the 24-year-old Rebecca. Nanxing took the extra step to shape up before filming- which his Muay Thai training three to four times a week, in preparation for his scenes in the movie, certainly didn’t hurt. But Nanxing needn’t have worried too much- “I believe that the age difference really didn’t matter,” Aaron quipped. “Only someone with as much experience as Nanxing could have brought out the kind of emotions those scenes needed.” 

Equally effusive in their praise of Nanxing was the rest of the local cast present at the press conference- Constance Song, Rebecca and Dai Yangtian. Constance said that Nanxing gave his actors room to explore their own characters and develop the characters themselves. As a director who hails with a wealth of acting experience, she added, he did not dictate how actors should express themselves and his requests were “always reasonable”. 

“He respects the work of an artiste,” said Rebecca, who also said that Nanxing would always try to make his actors feel comfortable on set. She didn’t have qualms about the intimate scenes she shared with Nanxing- in fact, she was glad for the opportunity to work with this Mediacorp “Ah-Ge”. Rebecca was especially thankful for Nanxing’s patience and encouragement during her many (literally) tear-ful scenes- including one that went through eight takes without any dialogue- since the actress was candid that she wasn’t a fan of such moments. 

Ever the straight-talker, Dai Yangtian declared that he did not think he would be able to summon the same kind of patience as Nanxing did on set. He recalled one of the days when they had been shooting through the night, but somehow an extra they got on the set just couldn’t get his scene right. “I could see he was tired and even exhausted, but Nanxing still patiently explained the scene again and again to the guy,” said Yangtian. “If it were him, I would have lost my temper a long time ago.” 

Indeed, it makes sense then that Nanxing was able to get the support of so many of his Mediacorp peers whom he was worked with over the years on board his movie- including Rayson Tan, Huang Shinan, Zheng Geping and Chen Shucheng. They may have had just bit roles in the movie, but each one of them was more than willing to say yes when Nanxing approached them. 

As Aaron, who only met Nanxing during the course of this movie but has already become good buddies with, said: “It’s really just part of his winning personality that’s helped him accrue so much goodwill amongst his peers after all these years.” And indeed, through this movie, that list has certainly grown. 

By Gabriel Chong